It’s time consuming, but good note taking and information extraction pay off in multiple ways. First, it creates raw material from which books, articles, blogs, podcasts, and other deliverables can be assembled. Second, a good base of information is indispensable for research and writing! Third, going through the process of interacting with information repeatedly and in various stages is a form of active learning that helps you retain more of what you learn.
In part one of this blog, I will detail my process for getting information into a structured outline that will serve as a base of raw material to draw from for research, writing, or other creative ventures.
!Caution! - Information extraction is a lot of work!
There is a drawback to this work. We only have so many hours in the day and so much energy. No doubt many of our research projects have deadlines. This means we are constantly under the pressure of the clock. Because it is so time consuming to take good notes, it is important that we vet which resources make it into the advanced stages of this process. That’s where we cannot skip the initial evaluation stage of determining which sections, chapters, or pages of a book make it into the process. In other words, we must carefully choose our sources and pick the ones that do the best job in supporting our work. More on that later, but for now, let’s concentrate on the basics of information extraction.
“Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” Ecclesiastes 12:12
You might be asking yourself, “what is information extraction”? So let’s define some terms here before we get into it.
Note Taking - The process of writing down information such as from a class or a book. This is a very wide definition and varies greatly from person to person.
Information Extraction - A subcategory of note taking, information extraction is the structured process of extracting information from a given resource (class, book, website) for purposes of additional processing later on. This is the very detailed raw material that can be used for additional research, writing, blog posts, books, etc. It is more structured than simple note taking, and much more involved, with a goal in mind as to how this raw information will make its way into the final product.
Active Learning - Research shows that the more we review and interact with information through a variety of means, the better and more permanently we learn it.1 For example, writing notes by hand has been shown to be more effective for certain information retention2 than simple typing of notes.3 Also, working with information repeatedly with breaks between the reviewing, to the point of being able to distill the information into a simple summary and then teach it over and over again, is one of the best ways to retain it.4
My Information Extraction Model - The Structured Outline
Now that we understand the difference between simple note taking and information extraction, it’s time to get into the details of exactly how to extract important information from a resource. There are many sources of information and sometimes, the actual process of extracting information needs to vary depending on the source. For example, how information is extracted from a physical book may differ from the process needed for a kindle book, research paper, or YouTube video. This is mostly due to the inherent nature of these mediums (more on this later). However, while the process may differ slightly depending on the source, the model for how this information is organized remains consistent across the board.
The Structured Outline
The philosophy is to extract the author’s meaning into headings, main points, sub-points, and a variety of what I will call, meta-points and other specialized indicators that point to, and assist in the processing of this raw information as it makes its way into the final product (a podcast, blog, book summary, research paper, etc). The basic structure is, as follows:
Heading Main Point (I,II,III...) Sub-Point-Alpha (A,B,C...) Sub-Point-Num (1,2,3...) Sub-Point-beta (a,b,c...) Sub-Point-roman (i,ii,iii...)
For example, here is information from an article on recent archeological discoveries, extracted into the outline:
It is not critical to maintain the indentations, but it does help to keep a clean format that draws the eye from a major point, down to subsequent points. Remember, the idea is to extract the meaning or points made in the text, not necessarily follow the structure of the text itself. So, for example, instead of aligning a heading in the outline with a heading in the text, the headings in the outline could be aligned with a set of points that you want to capture in any given part of the text.
Keeping Track of Who Said What and Where
Remember that information extraction is about developing a raw base of information from which we can create books or other resources. In light of this fact, we need to think ahead and consider some other attributes of our raw information that will be helpful. For example, citations. How will we know which lines of text are quotes, vs summary statements, or our own thoughts vs the author’s thoughts? Furthermore, where did the information come from (which resource and page number)?
What I do here is make use of metadata within the structured outline that assigns meaning to various colors, symbols, etc. I will get more into this later on, but to help you understand what I mean at a basic level, here are some simple pieces of metadata that I use:
Quotes - nothing crazy here. Simple default text, copied verbatim from the source resource represents a quote.
Summarized Text - text that is summarized in my own words is written in green ink, or typed and highlighted in green.
My Own Words/Comments - any of my own thoughts, words, or commentaries are either written in blue ink, highlighted in blue, or highlighted in yellow. This depends on the medium I am working with (notebook, kindle, note taking app, etc.).
Page Numbers - are in parenthesis, before the piece of information.
Here is an example:
The reason behind this, again, is so that we accurately communicate the author’s thoughts, avoid plagiarizing and distinguish our own thoughts from those of the author. Furthermore, because we have the page numbers above the text in question, we always know where and what page the quote or summarized text was found (in order to accurately cite it).
So there you have it, the basics of information extraction. I would encourage you to try this out on a book or other resource and see how it works for you. Maybe you would tweak it a bit to suit your own way of thinking. Either way, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Stay tuned for part two where I will get into how to use citation managers, additional metadata attributes, philosophies for how to approach information extraction, and more examples with various types of media. Thanks for reading!
Dr. Leaf. “How to Improve Your Memory.” Accessed January 15, 2022. https://drleaf.com/blogs/news/how-to-improve-your-memory.
The Learning Scientists. “New Findings Inform the Laptop versus Longhand Note-Taking Debate.” Accessed January 15, 2022. https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2019/2/21-1.
May, Cindi. “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop.” Scientific American. Accessed January 15, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/.
A&S Academic Advising and Coaching. “The Feynman Technique,” August 7, 2020. https://www.colorado.edu/artssciences-advising/resource-library/life-skills/the-feynman-technique-in-academic-coaching.
“Revealing Dr. Harris’ Highlighting Method for Bible Study – Glory Books.” Accessed January 16, 2022. http://glorybooks.org/revealing-dr-harris-highlighting-method-for-bible-study/.