By now, no doubt, you will have realized that for each of these different levels of processing (analysis/structure, and criticism/evaluation) there is the most appropriate note-taking strategy. Of course, this should come as no surprise. It endorses what we’ve said a number of times already, that flexibility and choosing the most appropriate strategy is the key to effective essay writing.
For example, we have already found in the interpretation stage that pattern notes are the most effective strategy for generating and recording the flow of ideas, when we brainstorm a question. And the same is true here: pattern and linear notes are each appropriate for different types of processing. Nevertheless, there will always be a text or an article which we’re using that seems to fall between two strategies, neither of which alone seems to do the job we want to do.
On these occasions I find myself taking the highly structured linear notes first, and then creating a set of pattern notes to give me a broad overview of the issues involved. In this way you can get around the problem of seeing nothing but detail; of not being able to see the wood for the trees. HTW13 7/26/01 9:06 PM Page 94 But for most of the jobs we have to do, the choice is clear: linear notes for analysis and structure; and pattern notes for criticism and evaluation.
As we’ve already discovered, our aim here is to identify and extract the hierarchy of ideas, a process which involves selecting and rejecting material according to its relevance and importance. Although by now this sounds obvious, it’s surprising how many students neglect it or just do it badly. As with most study skills, few of us are ever shown how best to structure our thoughts on paper.
Yet there are simple systems we can all learn. Some students never get beyond the list of isolated points, devoid of all structure. Or, worse still, they rely on the endless sequence of descriptive paragraphs, in which a structure hides buried beneath a plethora of words. This makes it difficult to process ideas even at the simplest level.
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This could be described as the parable of two mental filing systems. One student uses a large brown box, into which she throws all her scraps of paper without any systematic order. Then, when she’s confronted with a question in the exam, she plunges her hand deep into the box in the despairing hope that she might find something useful. And most of us are quite capable of doing this with considerable skill, if only we know how to do it.