[M.M.X.I.V. 244] Best of both worlds

I originally did not have a post ready for today, so my inspiration came from reading blogs this morning.  The post from Taylor Yates was particularly salient to me, so I wanted to comment on it and add my own thoughts.

Yates is a student studying psychology, and at the beginning of her college career, took all notes in color-coded hand-written systems.  Last year, she “joined the 21st century” and eschewed notebooks and pens for word-processing and iCal.

However, she felt like it was hampering her learning, from causes such as the possible distractions of the blog, social media, and other difficulties when using a computer to take notes.  Psychological studies have shown that writing and typing cause different processing of information, and therefore if you use only one mode, it can be detrimental to learning.  In particular, writing something down allows categorization and immediate processing that typing does not allow.

(Granted, the study that Yates cited included an abstract alphabet, so that the study seems like some of the psychological studies that focus on nonsense syllables.  I find it interesting how we can still attempt to generalize results from these studies!  After all, psychology is an applied science of which the results are accessible to the masses.)

When I was in high school and college, I would try to color-code my notes.  For example, in math classes, black would be my usual color.  Red for propositions, lemmas, and theorems, blue for examples, green for problem-solving strategies, and pencil for proofs or analysis within the examples.  I found that it helped me to search my notes when I would read them over again in preparation for exams

I also used a two-column format for notes, since I was fairly studious about doing the reading assignments prior to class.  (Thanks to Melanie Farber for suggesting this when I was a sophomore in high school!) On the left-hand column, I would put reading notes from before class.  In the right-hand column, I would put class notes, allowing me to use blue stars to indicate in the reading notes that it was covered in class, or to use arrows to explain, expand, clarify, etc.

I never brought my computer to class when I was in college unless it was specifically requested.  I am not sure that it was because of the risk of distraction, but rather that I could see no benefit in typing the notes directly.  This would especially have been pernicious in the science classes, because during undergrad, I only knew about Microsoft Word for math stuff, which is terribly unhelpful since its math interface is point-and-click (not to mention that I didn’t even realize that there was this option until midway through my undergrad career!)

Once I got to grad school, I learned how to use LyX, a LaTeX front-end that made my documents appear much more professional, and seamlessly incorporated the equations into my writing.  Although using LyX does not have all of the features of LaTeX, for what I needed it for at the time, it was plenty sufficient.  However, I was still doing my homework assignments by hand instead of submitting a LaTeX-compiled document.

The title of this post is called “The best of both worlds.”  Therefore, I did not completely eschew using technology in my studies in school.  My first instance of using both was for personal, rather than academic, reasons.  During my first few weeks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2005, I was journaling daily and wanted to share my experiences with my family and friends.  Therefore, after writing the journal by hand, I transcribed it from the hand-written version to the computer later in the week.  After two weeks, when I decided to stop the paragraph-journaling, I finished the transcription and sent it to family via e-mail.

This idea further gave me the idea to transcribe my notes from the hand-written to the computer.  This would force me to look at the notes again, re-process the information, and then make them searchable, e-mailable, and all the other good things that come with technology.  I still have all of my notes from undergrad on my computer, and I will occasionally refer to them, sometimes just for the sake of nostalgia.  Indeed, looking back at some of these notes shows how clueless I really was as an undergrad at times 🙂

(In fact, let me give an excerpt from my journal from Saturday, August 27, 2005, which is handily transcribed on this computer!)

Upon my return [from brunch at Selleck], I took my computer and binders to the [Neihardt] courtyard. I transferred my notes, and when I finished, I noticed a checkbook with someone’s room number on it. When I looked at the room, this person’s name was NOT on the door. So I took it to the front desk and checked it in the lost-and-found. <I forgot the name on the checkbook [but I would redact the name anyway in the transcription].> Then, I took my towel, swimsuit, and bowling ball. The first destination was Hillcrest [Country Club].

(Come to think of it, I had forgotten about the checkbook.  Yet another reason why it is fun to consider old journal entries and notes!  Exhibit B: My post on GLARF!)

In fact, I can tie this into the Character Building Trial as well.  During the four weeks of Phase One, I was unable to do any writing with my right hand, and my left hand made my writing so illegible that I essentially banned myself from writing.  In the physical journal, I simply wrote down the number corresponding to the ordinal day of the Trial, along with a letter and number corresponding to the day.  (Picture below).

As seen from my journal, Days 20 and 21 of the Character Building Trial.

But, I have the computer as my “primary” source for my journal entries during that time.  I will also say that most of my blog posts are generated directly on the computer, rather than writing them by hand ahead of time.

Although it is good to embrace technology, there are definitely times where you should consider returning to the stone age.  Old fashioned need not be passé… rather it can be in vogue!


Today is the two-hundred and forty-fourth day of M.M.X.I.V.  That makes thirty-four weeks and six days.

Today is the forty-ninth day of the Character Building Trial.  That makes seven weeks.


5 thoughts on “[M.M.X.I.V. 244] Best of both worlds

  1. Both have their value, Noah, I do so agree – and, like you, I alternate. I do feel that, for me, the connection between pen, hand, eye and paper is very special – and, whilst I love writing on here, I do not think I could ever give up the handwritten journal entries.


  2. I like the idea of transcription! I did that for a History class I had last year. His lectures were all over the place, and so I would try to scrawl as much down as I could on paper during the lecture, then go home, type them up, and fill in the blanks where necessary. It’s a great way to integrate the two methods of note-taking. Thanks for using my post as inspiration – I’m glad you could relate!


    • You’re welcome, Taylor! Metacognition on learning and processing is something that I often do, despite not being a psychologist by trade. (Cognitive psychology, however, was the focus of my psych minor in undergrad.)


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