What Is The Purpose Of Note Taking?


Monday, 7.37pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life. – William Morris

I finished my last post by thinking about why we take notes.

Our first exposure to the practice of note taking is in the classroom, where it’s supposed to support learning. We’ll come back to that in a while but it makes sense to look at other places where note taking is used and why.

Mueller and Oppenheimer (2016) give us a window into these worlds as they look at whether technology helps or hinders note taking in different work environments. Two in particular, medicine and law, have specific reasons for the way in which notes are taken.

A doctor’s notes on a patient help in two ways. They are a record of observations, diagnoses and medications. And they protect the doctor and institution from claims of malpractice. As such they are institutional records and there are controls over how they are made and where they are kept. If you’ve been to a doctor’s surgery you’ll know they spend lots of time tapping away at their keyboards interacting with systems, rather than with their patients.

Legal notes, on the other hand, are a different kind of beast. The law exists in its own parallel world. Things that make sense to you behave very differently in the world of the law because they are defined and used in particular ways. This makes it a problem when juries, composed of “normal” people have to make decisions on cases. If they take notes they may focus on the wrong things. The right things to note are the points made by the experts and in some jurisdictions juries are not allowed to take their own notes or are given the key points and notes that they are meant to consider. A lawyer listening to you will take notes of what is important in the world of the law, rather than what is important to you personally.

As a related profession police work is also about note taking and procedure because notes form part of the evidence gathering process. Notes and reports support or weaken the case and the way they are written matters. This leads, not unexpectedly, to notes being written to make the point that’s needed rather than what might have really happened.

What this series of posts is concerned with, however, is note taking in a business context. Note taking in business isn’t about learning, although it can be, and it isn’t about legal or professional responsibility, although it can be. It’s really about understanding a situation and taking action. The world of business is uniquely action oriented, a machine to direct resources to carry out activity. That activity may be efficient or inefficient, and how good or bad it is will depend on how well people understand and agree on what needs to be done. Not everyone in business takes notes, although arguably they should, and those that do use them to keep a record of what they’ve talked about and agreed. Hopefully it’s been a good discussion.

In all these cases it’s important to take notes – but is that easy or hard to do? Note taking is clearly quite a complex activity but just how difficult is it?

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh


Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. 2016, “Technology and note-taking in the classroom, boardroom, hospital room, and courtroom”, Trends in neuroscience and education, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 139-145.

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