31 October 2012

Practice: Note taking

Yesterday I decided I wanted to improve my note taking skills (my finance stopped trusting my memory a long time ago and it's time I do the same). I also decided books, blogs and similar was forbidden ground cause I constantly find myself reading instead of practicing when I try to learn something, which I don't think is a good thing. So I picked a presentation, in this case Elisabeth Hendrickson's keynote from Cast 2012 (The Thinking Tester, Evolved), and forced myself to take enough notes to be able to retell her key points a week later. At the bottom of this post I've added my actual notes as pictures, not very easy to read but hopefully good enough (with my handwriting when writing fast, I don't think any picture quality would make a difference though)

First a few general realizations:
  • It was fun!
  • It was easier than I thought! I don't know if this was because it was fun, due to the specific topic or some other reason but I guess time will tell.
  • It felt efficient! I have a hard time imagining it would be possible for me to learn as much in the same amount of time by reading (for this topic I should add).
  • Just like reading makes you practice other skills, like focus, this was an efficient way to practice several other useful skills for instance:
    • Observation
      Both during and after I observed everything I did in a conscious way.
    • Reflection
      From the observations I draw conclusions and tried to figure out what I could learn from these conclusions.
    • Focus/Discipline
      This was, for me, a much more powerful way of practicing focus than reading.
    • Listening
      In this particular practice I soon noticed my way of listening to what Elisabeth actually said got better and better leading me to believe this could be a powerful way of practicing listening as well.
  • I feel motivated to do it again!

So what did I learn about my way of taking notes (the quick version):
  • I'm not bad at taking notes when I really try, my problem is rather that I don't try
  • I tend to structurally close sections (for instance adding borders) before they are really finished adding some interruption in flow when I have to fix this.
  • I change style when I mentally change section. That's actually quite useful since it makes different parts easier to distinguish. Compared to my borders above it's much easier to come back to sections when style, rather than boxes, differentiate them.
  • I like to headline my sections, sometimes that becomes counterproductive, for example I sometimes make up headlines before I really understand what a section is about making my final result confusing.
  • In the beginning I wrote down stuff as I heard them, the more into the note taking I got the more I listened to a whole section before adding notes, this made the notes more relevant but sometimes I missed out on details. In most cases I would prioritize relevance, but I have to be aware it's not always the best choice.
  • I organize my notes on paper as I organize the information in my head. I have a hard time writing down my notes in a more "reading structured way". This could sometimes be useful (I believe) so trying a similar practice with a more "live blogging" approach would be very interesting. Also, this could be an area where reading would be really helpful. I've not read so much of Markus Gärtner's work yet but I've understood from comments he's the king of live blogging so that could be one place to start...
  • I believe some parts could have been better represented with visualizations. This is definitely an area to improve, maybe by doing a similar practice with just different constraints.
I'm pretty sure more lessons will be learned tonight when I sit down and look at my notes again (only did that briefly yesterday) but no matter the outcome tonight, this feels like a success! Hope it can help someone else as well.

... and by the way, right now retelling key points next week seems really within reach...


  1. Great post. I like the different areas of notes. And I like the way you explain the learning. I'd like to hear more about exercises like these, because I think I might try this at some point. Right now I have a mountain of books to go through. :)

    Good job, Erik!

    BR, Peksi

    1. Thanks Peksi,

      With "explain the learning" did you mean the lists in general or did you mean something in particular?

      Are you the kind of reader who hordes books you have the intention to read but rarely do or do you just have too much you want to read to keep up? .)

    2. I'm the kind of reader that needs physical books to hold in hand and read. When I have lots and lots of books, I tend to read them all. If I buy a dull book, I will read it and say "Well this was a stupid book."

      You explained the key points on what you learned. I have seen blog posts like this, where people tell how they did it, but I want to know why *I* should do it. Your learning becomes my motivation to learn it myself.

      And by the way, do ask Elisabeth for comments. I think testing community supports that kind of behavior. I wrote about ISTQB and asked for Rex Black's opinion. (James Bach refused to comment that. He said he doesn't want to get angry.) :)

      - Peksi

    3. I envy you... if a book doesn't catch my attention after say the introduction, the odds of me reading it is like... India beating Finland in ice hockey.

      Offer James to go RTS a third time (this time with Paul) to make your comparison between the courses even better. In return you just want him to comment on the post. Win-Win, right?

      I'm glad I could communicate some motivation as well, not the simplest thing. Appreciate to shared that.

      With those words about Rex Black and James, I really do have to ask Elisabeth after the retell is written, I sense inspiration going back and forth here .)

    4. Erik,

      Its catchy to see India in your comments.

      Srinivas Kadiyala

  2. It would be interesting to read you reflections about your notes after you have retelled it.

    What part did you most benefit from?
    What part was most imperfect?

    1. My girlfriend would probably ask me to leave the room if I tried to retell Elisabeth's keynote to her. So my plan is to write a blog post only using my notes... maybe I should ask Elisabeth if she's interested in judging it... we'll see .)

  3. Thanks you've inspired me into actually make an effort in taking notes the next time I listen to some interesting speaker.

    I was on the verge of asking if you had any literature to recommend on the subject, but realized that I should perhaps just get started instead of reading a book ;-)

    1. Mission accomplished .)

      Yeah, I have a nice book on mind maps I read several years ago, I'll see if I can find it. That was a really important on for me to start taking notes in just any way that is not "linear"...

      On reading I can however recommend this:

      If you google "Alan Richardsson thinking visually", you will find a great video related to the slides as well as comments on the video (incl. Johan Jonassons blog post which I think add extra value to the presentation).

      Hope that helps.

  4. Very nice post, I love your note taking style! Very visual and I can see almost how your pulling your thoughts together.

    You should try mind mapping them using a mind mapping tool such a XMind. You'll find it's much easier to structure your thoughts without losing track of the talk.

    Have a look here: http://www.bettertesting.co.uk/content/?p=956 on how to get started.

    1. I have tried using XMind before but I, for some reason, feel distracted using computers, phone or similar when taking notes... even in meetings where I need to have my computer running in front of my I very rarely use it for note taking. But it's a good advice, if nothing else to other people reading this!

      Like the link by the way, I will check that out after work today!

  5. Nice post on Note Taking.

    It was good to learn.

    I agree with you which u stated on Nov 8.

    srinivas kadiyala