How to Take Smart Notes

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Reader's Reflections

Reflection on How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens


The author, Sonke Ahrens, warns that after inculcating the habit of note-taking, “Watching others read books and doing nothing other than underlining some sentences or making unsystematic notes that will end up nowhere will soon be a painful sight.” This has absolutely happened to me.

This book is about how we process information by making notes when we read and then synthesising these notes within a knowledge system in order to develop our own ideas and then produce original content based on our insights.

Seen in this way, writing is not what follows research, learning or studying, it is the medium by which all this is possible. Moreover, writing is not an act of proclaiming opinion, but is a tool for achieving insight that is worth developing and sharing.

When most people read they will underline or take a snapshot of a page whenever they see something interesting. The problem with this is that it goes no where, there is no development, is prone to decontextualisation, and it makes us focus on words and not meaning. When we take notes that we express in our own words, we are forced to think about our understanding of the points being made. This, when integrated with our other notes from other books and from other subjects foster the development of new insight. This is the strength of note-taking.

The book emphasises the importance of having an external knowledge system that helps us achieve insight. The author refers to the slip box method of knowledge management (or zettelkasten) employed by Niklas Luhmann (d. 1998), but some form of knowledge management or commonplace has been used over the centuries by innumerable scholars. In the past everyone had to use a physical notebook or index cards, but now digital software has really made things much easier. However, the same principles apply to both physical and digital slip boxes. The book goes into much detail about slip boxes so I will not repeat here.

Apart from the very useful ideas about note-taking, reading, thinking and writing, the author, who is a lecturer in Philosophy of Education at the University of Duisburg-Essen, talks about distraction, motivation for learning, fostering a growth mindset, avoiding pitfalls such as confirmation bias, making connections, establishing reading habits (never read without a pen and a notebook, for example), and many more.

Whoever you are, whether you are a student or not, this book sets you up for a life of learning from our reading and being systematic about our knowledge management. It is an encouragement to follow our interests wherever they lead us, and to read, think, and write (and repeat).


How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens

Reader's Reflections

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