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Taking Note(s)

Taking NotesA while back I was flying from the east coast to the west coast and decided that to educate and entertain myself along the way I would download a few TED presentations to my iPod. I did so, and I watched talks by Clay Shirky, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Yochai Benkler.

Very enjoyable. Very edifying. A good learning experience, I felt.

But then, as the plane was landing – a mere 15 minutes or so after I had stopped watching the presentations – I came to a disturbing realization: I had only the vaguest memory of what was covered in each lecture.

Since that time, I have been much more dedicated to the idea of taking notes whenever I read, listen to, or watch something from which I am hoping to learn. And I am trying to get better about returning to these notes periodically to review and reflect upon them – a practice that it is no easy task to maintain amidst the flood of new information that comes pouring in daily from the Web.

I renewed my commitment to note-taking yesterday as I was attending an event held by the Association Executives of North Carolina (AENC). This was a lunchtime event, largely social in nature, but it featured a keynote speaker, David Goldsmith, who promised to explain how association could achieve explosive growth. This is a topic of perennial interest in the association world – as in other business sectors – and given the current economic climate, you would expect it to be of even more pointed interest than usual.

Certainly the level of attendance at the event suggested great interest, but as Goldsmith began offering up what struck me as quite a few noteworthy points, I looked around the room and realized that, as far as I could tell, I was the only person taking notes. (Okay, some of the people banging away on their Blackberries may have been sending out notes to themselves or the world, but my suspicion is that they were just checking e-mail.)

The absence of note-taking began to take on deeper meaning – at least for those of us who were taking note – as Goldsmith talked about the concept of “higher value” vs. “sub-values” offered by an organization. This was basically a “features vs. benefits,” “What are your customers really buying?” line of argument delivered quite effectively. His point was that people don’t really buy “education,” or “professional development,” or “research” – some of the very things that associations are most likely to tout in their marketing. Rather, they buy the opportunity for the outcomes that those things produce for them: career advancement, better pay, etc. These outcomes are examples of higher values while specific activities like education or research are sub-values.

Of course, an important nuance to the sub-value/higher value distinction is that sub-values, at some point, have to convert into higher values for an organization to achieve its mission and the member or customer to be satisfied. How does that happen? Alas, in the case of education and knowledge, it is ultimately in the hands of the learner. An organization can provide the information, the learning experience, but the organization can’t really assume responsibility for converting information and experience into value – particularly with adult learners.

Taking notes, reviewing notes, reflecting on notes is, in my opinion, one of the most basic steps any of us can take towards transforming our learning experiences into higher value. And ideally, we don’t wait for the words “seminar” or “training” or “class” to kick us into note-taking gear. (I have a hunch that if the AENC lunch I attended had been labeled a “seminar,” the percentage of people taking notes would have shot up.) We also don’t wait to be handed one of those incredibly wasteful “Learning Journals” that accompany so many conference bags.

Note-taking can be an important part of all of our learning interactions, from the most traditional, structured experiences to highly informal, unstructured situations. We should always have our own preferred means for taking notes at hand. I know, it is an obvious point – but it seems well worth noting.

Jeff Cobb
Mission to Learn

P.S. – Follow Mission to Learn on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missiontolearn

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Managers: Write Down Your Personal and Team Successes! « Managing eLearning says

[…] as our annual holiday gift to remind people to “Note your successes.” This was inspired by Jeff Cobb’s blog post and Steve Job’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford.  You and your team will have personal […]

Parag Shah says

Keeping a digital recorder handy is a nice idea. I will try out Evernote (right now I use a simple wiki).


Jeff Cobb says

Parag – Thanks for commenting. A personal podcast is an interesting idea. One thing I do is carry a digital recorder with me, which can be a great way for capturing notes/thoughts. These are getting cheaper and cheaper. I’ve also been trying to use Evernote, though I haven’t quite made it part of my routine yet. – Jeff

Parag Shah says

I totally agree with the importance of taking notes.

I am a software developer and I often forget how I solved a problem just a few days back. I have now started taking short notes of almost every new thing I do and reviewing them in boring meetings (or while waiting for things) 🙂

I am also thinking of creating a personal podcast (just for myself) where I can record the new things I learned or encountered in the current week. It will serve as a review and will help me archive my notes in yet another medium. However I am not very sure of the time it will take to create it.

In the age of information overload, I also feel that it is important to restrict the amount of information we take in. I have often notices that when I take in way more information than I can remember, I forget everything. I have not yet become very disciplined about this information diet, but I get this ever growing feeling that it is as important as taking notes of important things.

sparrow says

I wholeheartedly concur!
Reach supports my personal experience,
the more modalities (see, hear, speak, touch, write, …) involved in learning,
the more we learn.

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