My entire life, I’ve been a note-taker. I’m the kind of person who puts pen to paper before the possibility to record audio or video even registers with me. Maybe that’s a remnant of my former life as a journalist who never left the house without a pad and some pencils. But even now, while pursuing my PhD at IMLR, I’d rather use paper than tablet. I’m also all Zoom-ed out at work, so it’s nice to get away from the screen for a while.
According to the Learning Types, my strongest type is Visual, although I’m multimodal and also use techniques favoured by verbal, and kinesthetic learners as well.
Anatomy of a workspace
As a teacher currently working from home and a part-time, distance learning PhD student, I spend most of my time at my desk. A big desk, natural light (south-facing room), and a comfy chair are essentials. I like to spread out and be able to have my laptop, a notepad and a textbook open without knocking my cup of coffee over. Here’s what that space looks like:
My work days start well before sunrise in winter, so sitting in front of a daylight lamp for 30 minutes per day has helped me cope immensely with the lack of daylight. I also dotted a few real plants around the place, while I’m only able to leave the house for essentials.
Maybe I like notes and lists a little too much, but I do have dedicated notebooks for textbooks, journal articles, and primary sources, as well as a PhD Planner for general notes. I use Leuchtturm1917 planners as they are hardcover, bound and slightly larger than A4, but that’s my personal preference. More on my note-taking method, as well as what the deal is with my reference list, can be found below!
I love to have a Weekly To Do List handy, and use Jstory Sticky Notes so I can put the list up wherever I need it. I colour-code depending on whether the task is for work, university or personal.
All documents for this degree – from notes to forms and downloaded resources – are saved on a dedicated hard-drive. I also keep a copy in the Cloud. I’ve learned the hard way to always have at least 2 if not 3 copies saved in different places, just in case a computer crashes or USB stick gets corrupted. Did I save a copy of my BA on a floppy disk (showing my age here, because while floppies were not that common anymore they were still a thing then) just because nobody would be stupid enough to steal a disk even if they took my laptop? Yes, I did.
Cornell Method Note-Taking
Have you heard of the Cornell Method for note-taking? It became my go-to for study materials halfway through my MA. It’s designed to give a one-page overview of your topic, including a summary in your own words. I use this method for seminars, lectures, meetings, and working with academic texts. As mentioned above, I have dedicated notebooks for textbooks, articles and my primary sources. I use one page per book chapter and one page per article. I also number all my sources, but more on that later. This way I have all my notes in one place and can simply flip through my notebook with coloured index flags to mark different topics and keywords.
Here’s how I use the Cornell Method to work with journals and textbooks:
As you can see in the picture on the right, I split the page into 2 columns, roughly 1/3 and 2/3 in width. The bottom 1/3 of the page is for summaries. In the margin on the left, I note whatever keywords stand out – I can colour code those later, so that once glance tells me what it’s about. Then I note down questions I had, things I might need to research further, names that were mentioned etc.
My main notes are taken straight from the source material. I can quote verbatim and write along in a seminar. The important part is the summary at the bottom: I write this in my own words. Not only does it help me reflect on what I learned; it also prevents me from plagiarising passages from the text as I paraphrase everything the way I understood it. This summary also has the bonus that I’ll know what the text was about even if I lose access to the source material.
Before the pandemic, you could find me studying in cafés whenever I had the chance. I like having indistinct background chatter, and the BBC did a recent article on just why working in coffee shops can make you more creative. While cafés are not an option during lockdown, I put on my headphones and circle through the tracks on Coffitivity, a website that recreates the sounds of bistros and canteens to get you into that common room mindset. All I really have to worry about is to have fresh coffee on hand
Sometimes, especially when I write, I also put on music. For me, it has to be instrumental, and I found soundtracks work very well for this. My go-to is a Doctor Who soundtrack that just works best for me.
Manual, numbered bibliography
One thing I’ve done since my MA, is to number all my source texts and keep a list of them handy. While I do use software like Zotero, I have also lost half my references before when my laptop crashed halfway through writing my MA thesis. So I keep a manual back-up, which I update continuously throughout my studies.
My numbering system:
- 0001a, 0001b etc. = Chapters from the same book
- B = Textbooks where I have the complete resource available either bound or as e-version
- C = Chapters where I do not have the complete resource
- J = Journal articles
- N = Novels
- P = Speeches & Conference Papers
- T = Theses
- V = Videos
- W = Websites
As soon as I get a source, I number it and note down all the information I will need to quote it. My personal preference is APA Style, but I can change this to whatever style I need later on. I’ll have the author’s name, publication date, title, publication, publisher, as well as the DOI or the link I accessed ready to go. My file is a simple Word file with a two-column table which I can sort either by number or alphabetically by author surname. I keep a synced copy online as well. It’s already formatted, so that I later just have to copy and paste the sources I ended up using.
This is what my list looks like in action:
As previously established, I prefer to use paper, and I colour-code my notes. I work with my texts a lot, write marginalia, highlight terms, quotes, and citations. Whenever possible, I try to print them out, especially journal articles, as long as they don’t exceed 20 pages. I number that print-out as well, and keep it in a folder. There are few things I hate more than losing access to a resource I need. The few textbooks I own are numbered and labelled as well, so I know exactly which one to grab. The labels on the book spines are printed on a vinyl sticker sheet and easy to remove again.
Whenever I access a website I might need to cite, I save a copy through the Print Friendly & PDF Google Chrome Extension, which allows me to print and save as PDF and basically gives me a screenshot. I do this as back-up, in case I can’t find the site again or it’s not cached.
When a deadline looms and I can’t afford to get distracted, I have one more trick up my sleeve. As we spend so much time during this pandemic online, it can be easy to have social media open in the background and before you know it it’s 2am and your paper still only has a word count of 200. When I really need to concentrate, I use the StayFocusd extension in Google Chrome. This allows me to blacklist all the sites I don’t want to visit, for a set amount of time. I can either set it on a timer, which allows me access for a few more minutes, or – and this is my go-to – I use the Nuclear Option. If enabled, I won’t be able to access the blacklisted sites again until the nuclear option expires. It really helps me focus, and it does come in handy when you have to pull a distraction-free all-nighter.
So this is it, this is how I study. While some of it might sound a bit old-fashioned or backwards to you, this is what works best for me. It also reflects my multimodal learning types. The visual learner who needs colours and post-its; the reader who works with the texts in any shape or form. The kinesthetic learner who needs to have the resource in their hands and readily available on paper, because knowledge is a tangible thing, and the social learner who needs the buzz of a café or study room to be their most creative self.
That’s not to say I never use digital resources. I do a great deal of things completely online and I’m definitely not a technophobe. But as I spend my work hours sitting in front of a computer and staring into cameras, it is nice to give my eyes a little reprieve from the strain. My notebooks with pages worth of Cornell notes can be taken anywhere and I will always have that summary available, even if the text is not. I also believe that doing a PhD is worth doing it properly, and using pen and paper allows me to slow down and truly focus on what I’m doing.