Questioning foundations: The note card method

by Mr. Sheehy

We teach what we know. After all, how can you give something to someone that is not yours to give? I think of this today because my sophomores are in the midst of their research papers. We have just finished note cards—well, some of us have just finished our note cards—and we are constructing the outline before writing the first draft. It’s a familiar process and I have been a champion of it for many years.

I champion this process—in particular the use of note cards—because I see it as a scalable method of note taking that allows students to manipulate information from sources in ways outside the organization of the original articles.

A few years ago I heard a colleague question the use of note cards, wondering whether it was just a time-honored thing that we do simply because it was done to us. I jumped to their defense, citing the things I noted above. I liked the way note cards could be shuffled and mixed; how once mixed, the original source became less important than the information on the card; and how, no matter how big your paper got, the method’s process held true. These things, I argued, were things to which students needed to be introduced. Once introduced to the traditional method, they had earned the right to manipulate it to their own whims. They could see the importance of tracking the source, of categorizing information, and separating notes into bites, and if they could apply those methods to an improvised version, then so be it. At least they had seen the underlying principles.

That was my argument, and I am still fairly convinced of it. On my desk is a student’s outline and in the first paragraph she plans to cite three different sources. Shuffling note cards helps her to do this, helps her avoid writing a source-by-source recap of the information she has read.

In my own experience, I have found the method useful on research projects, even through graduate school. The biggest problem I had with it regarded the way it wasted energy in a computer age. I was copying by hand what I was seeing on a computer screen and later typing that information back into the computer—a terrible waste that would not be tolerated in another industry. The problem was not that much better when reading books or paper sources—again I was copying something by hand only to have to type it later. Acutely aware of this, I searched the web during graduate school for a program that would allow me to skip the pen work.

I experimented with note programs, Google Notes, text boxes in Word, and online bookmarks, but was not happy with any of them until I stumbled upon Zotero. I have praised Zotero before, but the heart of my praise is that the program mimics the note card method. With it I was able to use the method I loved without the extra step.

Yet when it came to my students, learning Zotero was not an option. I would have had to teach the students the software, and the learning curve’s steepness and the difficulties with shared computers were substantial enough that it could never be justified.

Thus I have settled into a basic default with note cards. We find our sources online, print them, and write note cards by hand. Then they type their papers. I teach the note cards because I know them, and because I cannot see a less energy-wasting method that teaches the skills I want to inculcate.

Then, while perusing Bruce Ballenger’s book The Curious Researcher for something else entirely, I was attracted to his section on note taking techniques. He describes two methods, neither one involving note cards. In fact, he described note cards in the first edition of the book but refused to include them in the second edition, admitting that

in good conscience, I can’t do it anymore. I no longer believe that 3” x  4” or 4” x 6” cards are large enough to accommodate the frequently messy and occasionally extended writing that often characterizes genuinely useful notes. Little cards get in the way of having a good conversation with your sources.

Clearly, Ballenger is not opposed to the note cards for their waste of energy as much as he is opposed to the way they allow the sources to dominate the conversation. This is certainly a weakness of my students’ work, and with that declaration he attracts my attention.

His first method was a take on the Cornell note taking method, or double-entry journal. With it, students write on the left side notes from their source and on the right side comments on those notes. He calls the comments the “fastwrite response.” I like the idea but cannot see that my students would have that much to say about each of their notes. It also does not solve the wasted-energy problem, as hand writing the notes would be the easiest way to work with the columns unless students did some slick work with tables in Word (something I find unlikely that my students would do well). If this were the only thing Ballenger had to offer, I would probably not change my ways–though I would feel a bit worse about them, knowing his criticism of note cards has merit.

The second method he describes, however, caught my attention. It is a research log where students create an entry for their notes with each source. At the top of the entry they put the works cited citation and the day’s date. Then they head a section, “What strikes me most.” After they have read the entire source, they take 7-10 minutes to write a paragraph in this section. Ballenger again calls this a fastwrite, and he suggests questions the student might ask to get going:

  • What strikes me as the most important thing the author was trying to say?
  • What surprised me most?
  • What do I remember best?
  • How did it make me feel?
  • What seemed most convincing? Least convincing?
  • How has it changed my thinking on my topic?
  • How does it compare to other things I’ve read?
  • What other research possibilities does it suggest?

I like the evaluation of the research that these questions embed in them—students are looking not only at the usefulness of the information, but at the trustworthiness of it.

After the fastwrite section, students write down specific notes from the source, carefully noting the page number for each note. After the notes section, they head a paragraph called “The source reconsidered” and complete another fastwrite.

I admit this method attracts me. It can be used easily with a computer and clearly demands that students interact with their sources instead of copying bland notes onto the page. The initial problem I see is that this method would make it more difficult for students to mix and match their sources when organizing their paper. It puts a lot of pressure on the outlining process, which I suppose could be a good thing, since it makes that step essential and relevant.

If I had a pile of these kinds of notes, I could print them out and lay them before me. Then I could reread them and look for the common subject headings, just like I do with my note cards. With this method, instead of physically moving my note cards, I would have to write the subjects and headings on my outline and then apply some sort of strategy for checking off the notes I had used. Personally, I would be tempted to number my notes and then on my outline jot the numbers of the notes I wanted to use for each section, so I would not forget about one while writing the paper.

The downfall with this method is that students may not mix their sources much, but the upside is that by the time they have completed six fastwrites on three sources, they will be much more familiar with their research than my students have ever been with the note card method.

I do have a few lingering questions and plan to seek input from others. First off, is the method properly scalable? In this I cherish the opinion of my college buddies, who have all completed graduate school. Somehow I doubt they all used note cards for their research, and I wonder if this research log more closely resembles what they did than the note cards.

Also, does this method teach the pieces as clearly as the note cards—the importance of tracking the source and integrating the different sources to make a new statement? Another concern: will students fall into copying and pasting large sections of text they do not comprehend?

Some of these questions I cannot answer on my own, and some I cannot answer without trying the log. I think this year I will try this research log with my freshmen. Perhaps at the end of that unit I will have a better feel for the possibilities of note taking for research.

Ultimately, I teach what I know. In doing so, however, I do not want to hold anything back. One thing I know is that the note card method has weaknesses, so it appears to me that it’s my job as a teacher to learn something new, if something better is available, so I can teach that to students too.

Thanks for reading.