• John H Keess

Maps Get You Lost: A couple of thoughts on note-taking

This blog is probably going to be more about general topics like note-taking, paper writing, research methods and workflow more than any specific academic topic, simply for the sake of variety. After writing about big problems, it’s cathartic to write about very small, specific ones.

Getting accepted to the programme has been a bit of a rush. Not metaphorically, either – it has been a burst of activity to tie up old accounts at work, sort out my apartment in Kingston, register for courses, and begin work on my first paper (in this case, a conference paper for the CDAI conference in September.


Through all this, I’m trying to set up a number of good habits. One thing I found during my master’s is that students who set up a fairly consistent routine were far more effective than people who did not. Professionally, I have been using a very simple Bullet Journal system to keep track of tasks and meeting notes, which I will probably still use to organise my day. Bullet journaling, however this is really not suitable for book and class notes. For this I am trying my hand at a modified Cornell system.

The Cornell note-taking approach, is good for three reasons: 1) it encourages you to take short notes 2) it separates summaries from reflections and 3) it has an inbuilt review system that both summarises notes and lets you jog memory as the days go on. I heavily dislike concept mapping and other visual methods, as these are usually interesting to make but very, very bad at quickly conveying the essence of something when you have to, well, check your notes.

This looks great, but doesn't really say much

The process works like this:

Step 1: Take quick notes. Generally, I have been reading PDFs electronically, and doing some quick highlighting. When reading books, I go through by chapter, marking points with small post-its notes. If possible, later that day, I go through and make quick notes about content in the right hand column with comments and follow-up articles in the right hand column. These approaches also don’t lend themselves to a logical flow of reflection and summarisation.

Step 2: Key themes. A day later, I quickly look through the notes and make comments in the small column, usually in a different coloured ink.

Step 3: Summary. Two days after the initial reading, I use the notes to jog my memory to make a very quick summary at the bottom.

It may seem laborious, but it’s not. I have found that once I get in a routine, summaries take no more than 10-15 minutes to complete, and the action of revisiting the material allows for stuff to sink in. It tends to flow well when used with the Pomordo Technique. Most importantly, it sets a process. It allows for a logical flow of the day – reading / summarising the previous day’s reading in the morning, writing and researching during the day. Mid-afternoon PT makes for a good logical break, and summmarising in the evening. Given that it is done in analog, it is suitable work for evenings given the negative effects of looking at a screen after supper.

This may look like a bit of a mess, but it's a summary of 20 pages of text


I generally like using the Staples-brand Arc books as they’re cheap for the quality of the paper, I hate binders and the movable pages mean you avoid the problem of having either poorly organised notebooks or half-filled ones. Oddly, the replacement paper is of higher quality than the original paper and is reinforced, so I recommend getting the replacement stuff right away and holding the original paper as a reserve. Helpfully, you can get graph paper as well, and a whole bunch of other stuff, like dividers and day-planner inserts. Not recommended is using the big rings – it’s better to have smaller notebooks, as I have found that the angles creates by the bigger rings cause pages to fall out easily.

If you do spring for the punch-hole machine, you can download a very good Cornell notes template from I have a double-sided, merged Cornell notes page that prints well if you turn off scaling that I will add to the documents section of this website. I have found that 24 lb paper holds very well in the rings and is far cheaper at scale than the official replacement paper anyhow.

If you are specific about layouts, I also recommend getting a few refillable pens. These are better got on Amazon, Fendrihan, or Knight's Writing where practical metal versions like the Pilot Metropolitan or a Kwaeco Sport can be procured for about $20. They’re far cheaper in the long run (when compared to buying good disposables, anyhow), and I find having the visual consistency (green for note-taking, blue for review, black for administration) helpful.

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