Monday, December 31, 2018

Note-Taking Techniques 1: The Index Card Method

I’m an old school kind of guy, and I think everyone who follows me on Twitter and reads my blog (and knows me as a person) knows this. 
I like highlighting, scribbling (by hand, on paper). I write handwritten notes. I keep just one notebook, my  Everything Notebook. I carry index cards, highlighters, fineliners, pens and my Everything Notebook everywhere I go. 
Therefore, I am sure that it will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody in the entire world that I still write bibliographic references, quotations and thoughts on index cards. Yes, small (3″x5″), medium (4″x6″), and large (5″x8″) cardboard, ruled index cards. In a previous blog post, I had shared how I take notes, but I am not 100% certain that undergraduate students would actually find my blog post very useful, since it’s been a very long while since I last took a class.
I graduated with my PhD years ago and I’ve been a professor for a pretty long time, so I thought that maybe I needed to settle down and clarify my ideas of the process I follow to take notes. In this series, I will share my processes to take notes using different methods. 
The very first method I use is the Index Cards Method. Other authors have referred to the process Niklas Luhman followed (Zettelkasten). Hawk Sugano has shared his Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) method as well. Mine isn’t all that sophisticated, and since I combine my very analog Everything Notebook and notes in index cards with digital synthetic notesmemorandums, Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dumps, and  Evernote, I don’t know that my system would be extraordinarily systematic. But here goes more or less how it works.
People have asked me if you could digitize (or make analogous) all my processes. Of course. What I call synthetic notes (summaries of articles, books) can be done in traditional index cards. And the reverse, you can digitally store these in Evernote. Make sure to note page number
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I produce at least 5 different types of index cards, which are more or less the same categories other folks have all agreed upon. Here are some resources on taking notes in index cards that I found useful as I was trying to make sense of my own system.
1. The Direct Quotations Index Card
I use index cards to write direct quotations (with page number and full bibliographic reference) from articles, books and book chapters I find useful. This card is the analog equivalent of my Synthetic Note method.
I am more used to writing index cards of books than of articles. I usually write important quotations but other times I summarize chapters or the entire book.
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2. The Bibliographic Reference Index Card
It’s rare that I do this one anymore because I have been using Mendeley and EndNote as reference managers for more than 15 years, but this was my study method and strategy to conduct research before: I would write the full bibliographic reference in a 3″x5″ index card. Then I would write a small paragraph on the back summarizing the entire book, or at least, the main idea behind it.
Some people (NOT ME) can use these "ideas" index cards to assemble their full papers. I am not this kind of index card user. I do write ideas here, but then I need to staple the card or include a plastic arrow that marks where in the paper this particular idea goes.
This is an example of “bibliographic index card” - it’s basically the full citation plus keywords. It is VERY rare that I use an index card purely for bibliographic data as I use Mendeley, but it’s still worth discussing.
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3. The One Idea Index Card
I find that these are useful for when you’re studying for an exam, testing your ability to recall, or when you’re giving a talk without reading a set of Power Point slides (e.g. when you’re leading a seminar, using each card as a theme for the seminar). I also use them to remind me of key authors who discuss particular themes and topics.
Some people use the 3"x5" index cards to write one major idea (theme) and a couple of sentences about it, like I do:
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As I said on Twitter, this is very rare for me to do, and I usually combine my own types.
Some people recommend writing JUST ONE IDEA/quotation per index card. I don’t do this. I use 1 index card per article, and per book chapter. If a book has 9 chapters I write one for each chapter (more of chapter is very dense). Note this paper by @rioconpiedras on nonhuman agency
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4. The Summary Index Card
This type of index card is a summary of a particular journal article, or book chapter, more than of an entire book.
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I also write index cards of journal articles, particularly when I feel that they’re particularly powerful or relevant to my research. As you can see, this index card shows my notes of this article rather than direct quotations.
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5. The Combined (or Content) Index Card
As its name indicates, the Content Index Card is a combination type of index card that includes direct quotations, draft notes and ideas, conceptual diagrams, etc. that are all associated with the main article, book chapter or book discussed in the index card. I use larger (5″ x 8″) index cards for those cases.
This is what some people call a “combined” or “content” index card. Note I included direct quotations (with page ) from Debbané and @rkeil’s paper but I *also* write my own thoughts (e.g. “this paper converses with @andrewbiro and his social construction of scale paper”
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There are obvious questions that people ask me, so I’ll try to answer them here.
1. Can you do digital index cards?
For sure. You can either do combinations as I do (physical index cards, then row entry in a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump row), or all digital (either in Evernote or simply in Excel, or synthetic notes or memorandums in Word or Scrivener as you may choose).
You can do digital or analog, or a combination, whatever suits you best. I combine, because I find that as I write on an index card, by hand, new ideas come to me. When I read full books, I write copious synthetic notes and then write a row entry in my Excel Dump.
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When I designed my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump, I made sure to include a column with the Quotation and another with the Page Number. This is important because as we know, plagiarism is bad, terrible citation practice, and can lead to degree termination/career ending!
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2. How do you store and classify index cards?
I usually have boxes that fit my index cards, and add a plastic tab with the reference in Author (Date) format. Other people use different classification systems (by keyword, by topic, by author). I just recommend that the process be consistent across.
If you like the index card by hand method you may want to use plastic tabs and label each index card and store them in a box
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3. When should I use memorandums and synthetic notes and Excel Dumps, when should I write in my Everything Notebook, when should I craft index cards?
This question has such a personal preference type of answer.
Quick responses to questions I get asked often, by students and fellow professors: 1) when do I use index cards, when do I write in my Everything Notebook, when do I simply type a synthetic note? The answer is complicated but comes down to laptop battery life and writing block.
If I'm on a plane to Santiago, 8 hours by plane, my laptop battery lasts 3 hours, no chargers on plane - if I want to be awake and work on the plane, I need to write by hand, either in my Everything Notebook or on index cards. Also, if I feel mentally blocked, I write index cards
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Index cards help me reframe my thoughts. In fact, that's one way in which some people write their papers: they write one idea in an index card, and then spread them on a surface and arrange them by chapter/theme/sub-heading. Aren't index cards more time consuming? Yes, they are.
I'm always stressed and under pressure to write, submit, revise and publish papers, but I have slowly come to the realization that it's better to let my thinking simmer and evolve, and mull ideas over, and writing by hand helps me do exactly that. So, yes, I do write index cards.
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I also write index cards on topics/papers I find super challenging. There's stuff that I am so familiar with that I can simply highlight and scribble and then transcribe my notes to a synthetic note/memorandum. But other topics are more challenging to me, thus writing by hand.
Can all this process be digital? Sure thing. Even a combination can work. You could scan your index cards into an optical character recognition thingie and store the digital content into Evernote, tag it and easily search through your bank of notes. Or you could simply type them.
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4. What size of index card should I use?
This is again, a personal preference as I note in my tweet below.
I have index cards in 3 sizes: 3”x5” (for quick ideas, but could be used as bibliographic reference cards), 4”x6” (for quotations from journal articles and summaries), and 5”x8” (for full books or very dense articles and book chapters)
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I do teach my students the Index Card Method of Note-Taking because I believe it is important to learn the old-school techniques, but also because I find that it helps me, and I strongly believe that if it helps ME, then it may also help THEM. In subsequent blog posts I’ll share some of my note-taking techniques when using my Everything Notebook, and other types of media.

You may be interested in my other posts on taking notes, which you can access by clicking on this link.