Some thoughts on taking notes in the field.

Why is this a skill worth developing? 4 arguments in response:

1) Your intellectual and visceral response to the landscape and geology can be so strong you think - "this I will not forget". Indeed, for some, including myself, visual memories are more detailed and long lasting than others. Note taking even seems to initially interfere with appreciation and understanding of the surroundings. Note taking seems a nuisance, an impediment to experiencing. Yet, details often fade with time as they are supplanted by subsequent experiences. A detailed notebook allows you to recover that information - it is an extension of your memory, it is an important record you can later draw on. Simply rereading notes can bring back memories, images, and understanding that was otherwise lost, inaccessible in our cranial recesses until released by stimuli in the notebook. In a science built in part on experience, field notes can represent a powerful extension of the experience one can call upon.

2) As mentioned above taking notes in the field often obtrudes into the field experience. Yet, given time, when taking detailed field notes I see, understand, and remember more. It's as if my mind is freed, by committing to paper one set of observations and ideas, to look for other nuances other patterns.

3) The more you record and observe the more likely you are to potentially recognize anomalies, and the recognition of new patterns or anomalies is the crucial first step to new insight. I suggest you record not only what is directly important to and supportive of your research and ideas, but as time permits, observe what might be related, but is not understood. Anomalies will not be apparent if you look narrowly. Writing is an important mode of exploration.

4) A final and most important reason to take detailed and extensive field notes is simply that others can benefit from your notes.


Some common mistakes:

Since I usually evaluate student's notebooks from field trips I will start with this perspective. The most common error is to pay to much attention to your professors. It is common to see in student's notes, the final interpretation and other lecture details given by the prof for a feature seen during the field trip, but not to see the observations and arguments that support or lead to that interpretation. It can be hard to distinguish facts and observations from models and interpretations, but the former are more durable that the latter. You can always come up with new interpretations, but not if you have lost track of the original observations and facts. So pay more attention to the landscape and the rocks (but don't ignore the professor!). Note observations.

It is also helpful to note where information or ideas come from. Profs, books, museums, classmates, personal observations are all sources. Later you or someone else may want to follow up on the idea or information, and noting their origin helps. Also, make clear what is an observation and what is an interpretation. Note sources.

We are so used to writing text that we often forget there are other options. Trying to find information within such text can be tedious. Where high info content and not prose is the objective then a hierarchal outline structure for field notes is often the best.
Headings, subheadings, and lists more easily provide context, and are much more efficient. Also, do not crowd your notes together, leave room for later additions. Use various devices to provide structure to your notes.

Sometimes, in the rush, observations are noted out of context, without connections to other observations or ideas. The reader (including the original author) may later come across the observation and suspect it has some greater significance, but not be able to establish it. Think of observations as often coming in groups. One should naturally lead to another, providing a larger context, a framework. Provide a context.

Students, perhaps fearing ridicule of their 'artwork' and simply feeling inexperienced, are often very reluctant to use sketches and diagrams when taking field notes. Yet a simple mental experiment tells you that such sketches and diagrams are much more efficient than text. Take a simple diagram (e.g. of local stratigraphy) and convey all the same information in words, in text. Which, the diagram or the text takes less time to create, and less time to read. The sketches and diagrams do not have to be artwork, they should be simplified representations, schematic, diagrammatic. Remember to include approximate scale and view direction in your sketches and diagrams, and label the different parts fully. For many field sketches and diagrams do take practice to become proficient at, but I believe its worth the effort. Use sketches and diagrams prolifically. Use sketches and diagrams.

What to include?

It can also be helpful to create a prospective observation list to remind yourself what to look for and record when you are in the field? This of course varies extremely dependent on where you go and what the field trip objective is. A partial list might include: geographic location, landforms present, biogeographic elements, ongoing geologic/geomorphic processes, sediment types, fossils and sedimentary structures (e.g. paleosols!), age of various features, stratigraphic unit, interpretations as to geologic history, environmental concerns, info from profs or other sources.


Copyright Harmon D. Maher Jr., This may be used for non-profit educational purposes as long as proper attribution is given. Otherwise, please contact me. Thank you.