Handbook for Doctoral Students in Education/Capturing and organizing your research notes

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One of the fundamental tasks for Doctoral students is to figure out to take and keep notes about the reading and research he/she is conducting. Somehow, middle school note cards seem a bit dated. Surely there are better ways of doing this. The purpose of this chapter is for people to write down how they keep their notes and find them later. The skill of capturing information and storing it for later use is something that every scholar must figure out for a successful life of research.

Some people are visual. They want to see and touch everything at the right time. You’ve heard of “just in time inventory?” Well these folks like "just in time data!" Now, some have been known to have strings hung from wall to wall in their homes with their notes taped to the strings. That certainly is visual!

Some people make copies of entire articles then highlight the relevant sections. Next they cut and paste on pages with citation numbers that match the source of that information. Organizing the pages in order is easy and can be easily changed. Whew! Sounds like a lot of work.

Another solution is to use Excel software. This simple spreadsheet software is usually used to work with numbers but it can be useful for words and sentences as well. Opening up a blank spread sheet, one creates enough columns for the project. The first column might be a cue about the citation or the whole citation but I prefer to link it to the Endnotes citation with either a number or author name/year. Next is a column for key words that describe what that data is about. You can also put a column in for where the data might go in your paper (introduction, argument for/against, methodology, etc.). Finally, the last column is where the actual information is typed. By turning on the wrap around feature, you can type as much as you like.

After collecting your data, you can use your computer to move text around or highlight it in different colors. Each color may be assigned a meaning such as a location in your paper or all information about a particular strand in one color. This makes it easy for scholars who are visual to find “just in time” data from their notes! For those of us whose handwriting is not the most readable, using Excel is a good way to ensure that notes are legible.

There are other techniques for those who aren’t visual or who learn by feeling (kinetics), hearing, etc. How do you keep track of your notes so that you can find the right information when needed?