Show your work: Why detailed note-taking is as critical for project managers as it is for students

Summer in the academic world is one of good intentions and mislaid plans. What do I mean? We plan and set goals and then get siderailed by other projects and unexpected opportunities. I laughed when a colleague shared that this phenomenon only happens in the academic world.

I’ve often shared with my students that they need to take copious notes. How often have we been working on a project and then get pulled off to do that very urgent project, only to have to return later with full focus to the first? Can you remember why you did things and how to continue after one month, two, or three? So, with students, we incentivize the writing of notes in conjunction with homework done on an automated system. In doing this, we support the building of good note-taking habits, and they see a reward in terms of a benefit to their grade.

Let me clarify that a bit. Many textbook publishers create problem banks for their textbooks – or now, more often, e-books. These problem banks can then be used by instructors to support comprehension of materials learned in a chapter or module. Sometimes, a test bank is used for a final or intermediate exam. This is a great tool for instructors, but it can become problematic for the student. You may ask how – supplied problem banks sound like a great opportunity for grading and maybe for the student, as they are guided through complex problem solutions.

The issue is in answer entry. If the publisher and textbook editors miss one of the possible configurations of answer entry, the student will get the problem wrong. The issue could be the spelling of a unit (kip vs. kipps vs. kipp), the number of significant digits (entry of an extra digit or missing one or two), or just an extra space. The student may have solved the problem correctly, but is plagued by issues that mark the submitted answer as incorrect! We reward good notes, and good problem-solving, regardless of the shortcomings of the answer key, by reviewing those problems marked wrong against the student's notes. This often results in partial if not full credit for the problem.

I recently sent a graduate student to another university to work on and collect data from a project unique to that university. He enjoyed the challenge, but the professor at that university and I constantly reminded him to take complete, descriptive notes, and possibly make cut outs from catalogs, etc. His work will eventually be published, part of his thesis, and may be replicated by others because of the nature of the project. He is learning the importance of detailed note-taking.

This exercise emphasizes the importance of good note-taking and supports the need to do so throughout life. I’ve been in situations with patentable materials—the importance of the lab notebook cannot be stressed enough! As I noted earlier, it is important to take good notes, so that when you go back to that original project you can continue and make progress toward your end goal as soon as you start back. Someone else may pick up the project, and they will need every detail possible to understand your intent and methodology!

Keep taking those notes!