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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Technical Writing: Notes on notes amplify student ability

Technical Writing: Notes on notes amplify student ability

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T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
trgirill@acm.org

Technical Writing: Notes on Notes Amplify Student Ability

Taking notes on their own notes (annotating earlier lab or field
notes with subsequent comments) is a simple technical writing move
that can amplify the talent of every science student.

Erick Greene's chapter (Ch. 12) in Michael R. Canfield's book on
Field Notes on Science and Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 2011) provides not only a striking example of this practice
but also some thoughtful insights on its value to the note taker.
Greene, a biology professor at the University of Montana, offers
advice on making one's notes more useful by making them more
inclusive than many students try by default. Some notebooks end
up having widespread influence--Greene points out that Henry
David Thoreau's field notes on the flowering times of 500 plants
near Concord, MA (recorded in 1851-58), are still used today for
comparison with current climate-change data. But most science notes
are used by an audience of one: the person who writes them. So
making notes more effective benefits the student author directly,
a nice case of positive feedback.

Based on his own experience, Greene urges science students to
widen the scope of their note taking to extend beyond just
observations or numerical data to also include (p. 258):

* memory aids--
about places, times, and conditions that could be
helpful later but will be forgotten if not captured
now,

* organizational aids--
cross references and page indexes (easiest if the
notebook pages are numbered) to manage the notes
themselves, especially for long projects, and

* commentary--
any remarks that could generate new ideas or
improvements on old ideas (more below).

Greene illustrates his advice with sample pages from his own
field notebooks. One page from 1993 is especially revealing
(reprinted on his page 262 and shared at
https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_GpgvtIPLFRaVlGNngwTWpZYTg/edit?usp=sha... ).

The most obvious content on this page of notes is data, three
sonograms of bird songs pasted into the notebook and briefly
described ("song type 1," etc.). But beyond the mere data are
three other value-enhancing "notes on the notes" here:

Interpretation:
Near the bottom sonogram Greene summarizes how he interprets what
the data have shown him so far--"There is variation WITHIN every
song type."

Conjecture:
In the middle of this page Greene captures his guess about trends
observed, which later observations may confirm or refute, but
which he doesn't want to lose: "Out of 26 songs recorded, there
does not appear to be one type given preferentially."

Questions for himself:
This sample page is dated 23 May [19]93. Along the left-hand margin
is a comment (a query for himself to answer later) that Greene must
have ADDED at least 5 days after 23 May on a second pass, because it
refers to subsequent notes and data recorded on 25 May and 28 May:
"Tentatively R/R B/M. Later check Vincent's sonograms for 25 May.
Are they intermediate for these and mine on 28 May [?]"

By including these extra comments (claims, guesses, questions) in
his notes, Greene has amplified their value to him both at the time
and later when he reviews them (and follows up on his self-
suggestions). As he says himself, these beyond-the-data comments
serve as "a powerful catalyst for new experiments and projects."
(p. 258).

Self-annotation is a neglected but learnable writing technique--
you can teach it and your students can practice it every day in
their own science notebooks. The two-column "Cornell format" for
notes even scaffolds this practice by leaving space for second-pass
headings, queries, and cross references. For more details and a
note-taking checklist that encourages such "content widening," see
http:/www.ebstc.org/TechLit/notes/notes.analysis.html

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