Notes as representations of knowledge
Most of the literature on note-taking focuses on writing individual notes on a particular topic, usually with an emphasis on their use as memory aids. Historian Ann Blair (2010) argues that European note-taking used to support long-term memory emerged in the Renaissance, where notes were often collected, reviewed, and shared with others. The emphasis on sharing and collaboration and the genre of reference books which emerged from these practices shifted note-taking methods to become a generally standardized in the early modern era ( Blair, 2010). This includes not just the content of notes but also their organization, as the collection of many-authored notes requires clear headings and the use of finding devices to locate any particular information ( Blair, 2010). Note-taking was largely considered a research tool, however, and students in early universities largely did not take notes in lecture contexts ( Clark, 2008; Marin & Sturm, 2021).
Today, note-taking has become an encouraged practice for students, although Blair (2010) argues that note-taking has become “more idiosyncratic to each note-taker” (p. 63). This is supported by some research on student note-taking which suggests a lack of systemic note-taking practices among post-secondary students ( Morehead et al, 2019). Further research strives to remedy this issue by offering practical tips note-takers can apply to their own practices, which includes a sub-genre of instructional guides aimed at students (see Broadwater (2003), Rohde (2013), and Perry et al. (2018). The most common assertion, however, is that taking good notes is not necessarily about being systematic but most importantly about representing that which is being noted as accurately as possible ( Gimenez & Pinel, 2013; Tinny & Nhamo, 2013).
This emphasis on representational accuracy is important in all contexts. As representations, notes stand in for the object of study and are used to inform subsequent analysis of that object once it is no longer within view. The question thus emerges about how to ensure representational quality of notes, with some suggesting the introduction of visual, audio, and audiovisual media to capture information without requiring the researcher to discern what is or is not noteworthy in the moment ( Tinny & Nhamo, 2013). This attempts to remedy the problem of representative accuracy through the inclusion of more forms of representation, a critical issue for empirical research. At the same time, however, it is also important to emphasize the researcher’s always inextricable role in the knowledges which their notes come to construct as they are the one who chooses what is or is not notable. This emphasis is commonly found in feminist research approaches, which recognize the constitutive rather than representational role note-taking plays in the production of knowledge.