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Technical Writing: Supporting Authentic Science Notes

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T.R. Girill T.R. 2430 Points

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore Nat. Lab. (retired)
[email protected]

Technical Writing: Supporting Authentic Science Notes

Students told to keep a notebook while they pursue a science project
(or just read about technical topics) often have little sense of the
note-taking challenges that working scientists face and the known
techniques for handling them well (Tom Knoll and others, 'User
Driven Research of Note Generation Software,', 6 May 2022,
arXiv:2205.02549v2). Recent exploratory work on note-generation
software to support busy physicians reveals four issues that could
benefit student note-takers as well. More self-aware note taking,
and hence more useful technical notes later, could be the result.


The widespread use of Electronic Health Records (EHR) demands that
clinicians keep detailed notes on every patient interaction. This
is just a public or extreme case of the note-taking challenge that
every scientist faces--should I try to take detailed notes during
an experiment or observation and risk inattention to the adventure
underway, or should I (mostly) defer elaborate notes until (just)
afterward and risk forgetting key features worth recording? Knoll
and colleagues discovered that real-life clinicians solved this
timing issue both ways. Some (usually touch typists) tried to
capture all key details as they unfolded, but most (which they
called 'sketchers' or 'doodlers') used only brief but incomplete
'place-holder' text to remind themselves of key events or
problems in real time, then returned shortly AFTER the clinical
session (or experiment or observation) to fill in rich details
prompted by their own previous signal text. Students may need
to try both timing strategies and make an overt choice to find
their own best path to useful, detailed notes.


For obvious legal-liability reasons, physicians generally insist
on reviewing any patient-interview notes generated by software.
But such critical revisiting is good practice for all scientists
and engineers. One's responsibility does not end when one turns
the notebook page (or scrolls beyond it). And aside from catching
fresh technical errors, such routine review lets the notetaker enrich
their observations and conclusions with clarifying second thoughts,
comparisons, and cross-references that make each day's notes more
helpful for future work (the paper notebooks of famous scientists
often show cross-references to other pages, added later by the


In the software-generated-notes tests, the participating clinicians
were all adamant that any resulting notes should be framed in
'official,' medical/academic vocabulary (names of diseases,
conditions, symptoms), not the unofficial, personal vocabulary
that patients with diverse educational backgrounds might actually
use to describe their own needs. Students are unlikely to face
that particular terminology conflict, but a similar issue can
arise if they begin a long (e.g. science-fair) project and only
later learn the appropriate, relevant terms and distinctions. This
is another place where self-editing early, informal notes into
learned-later technical vocabulary can improve the text value for
study, reuse, and self-guidance as the work (and the note-taking)


Students mostly expect that they write notes for themselves--to
study, guide their project's next steps, or pass a later test.
Physicians using EHRs expect the opposite--total strangers will
routinely see and study what their notes include (or omit).
Science fairs offer students a pivot between these note-audience
situations: project notebooks are for the student first, to
guide and capture project steps, but later they will be examined,
even scrutinized, by strangers evaluating every aspect of the work
done. So legible text, relevant drawings or photos, and dated
entries or updates on numbered pages are crucial aspects of notes
that strangers (eventually) will see.

Taking really useful science notes is a practiced, acquired skill.
Early student awareness of these timing, review, vocabulary, and
audience issues (pointedly raised by, but not unique to, note-
generating software) can accelerate student note-taking success.

[For a big-picture overview of note-taking effectiveness, see
For more on note-taking strategies, see]


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