How to enjoy taking notes and revising things

Blog, Design with Intent, Education, Entropy, Forcing functions, Teenagers, Vague rhetoric

It occurs to me that it’s now October, and in Britain that really means the summer’s over (though as I write this it’s pleasantly sunny and crisp outside). And despite attending a lot of very interesting talks and events over the past few months, I’ve been very lax at writing them up for the blog.

Part of me enjoys the act of ‘revising’ – I think I was always the kind of teenager who actually quite liked exams, in a way (not in all ways, but some). Right through my time as an undergraduate and doing my master’s, I kept incredibly poorly organised notes, almost intentionally so, on hundreds of unfiled sheets of paper. (Well, filed in time-based strata, perhaps.) During boring or repetitive lessons and lectures, I often wrote whole pages of notes in mirror-writing, or upside-down, or applying arbitrary rules like using the long S or scharfes S or replacing any word that had a mathematical meaning in another context with its symbol, often very convolutedly, so using a delta every time the idea of “change” was present, or transmuting the word “regarding” into “with respect to”, “wrt” and finally just “d” (as in the calculus sense). Hey, the rules made sense to me and somehow that level of engagement, however nonsensical it might seem, actually made me think about what I was writing down.
Then, when it came to ‘revision time’, I’d spend maybe a couple of days simply sorting through this (on the face of it) nightmare morass of notes, because I had to: they were useless otherwise (yes, a useful landmine strategy). And that act, of sorting out the hundreds of pages into coherent taxonomies, subjects and themes, imposing boundaries and ascertaining relationships, was not only like playing back the salient parts of dozens of lectures in rapid succession, but also forced me to read the notes: I had to, to work out how to file them. I had to work out what I’d meant when I wrote some gobbledygook. It made me think about it all again, reinforce what information I’d already retained, and add the rest – there was a lot of subjectivity in terms of what aspects I’d noted in the first place, of course. When it then came to the real ‘revising’, once the papers were organised, I had retained much more of it than I would have done otherwise, and was very much aware of what areas I didn’t understand: which bits needed further work, and so on. It worked: it really did. It was useless when someone said “do you mind if I borrow your notes?” but from my point of view, I felt totally immersed when revising. It had the right mixture of challenge and ability. It was great.
Anyway, the point of all that is that to some extent I’ve been looking forward to getting round to writing about some of these talks and events, and the delay has had a certain kind of pleasant anticipation about it. The reports will be based on notes that are, while no longer as eccentrically formatted as they once would have been, subject to a fair degree of personal interpretation. And the things that have stuck in my mind in the interim – what’s stayed with me about a particular talk in the intervening months without referring to those notes – will inevitably be fairly well reinforced by now.


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