Coding What Matters in the Margins

by Kara Dymond, reposted with permission from The Autism Lens

Helping Learners to Pinpoint Main Ideas

Image: sample of teacher lecture notes, coded in the margins.

Writing by hand was never comfortable for me and my illegible scrawls made it seem pointless. The perfectionist in me still wanted to get it all down, so I used short forms and visual shortcuts that made it easier to write quickly, keep up, and make sense of concepts. I would draw smiley (or unsmiley) faces to identify how different stakeholder groups felt, and used directional arrows to show causal relationships. Somewhere along the way, I also began colour-coding. The visual way of representing categories, concepts, and relationships aided my recall, even more than typing up my notes (which, let’s be honest, I’d never look at again). So, when I sat down to write The Autism Lens and include some useful tools for teachers, I decided to develop a notetaking system that might help neurodivergent children and teens make connections more easily. You can read about the system, download the graphic organizers, and learn how to introduce these here.

As it turns out, my notetaking system also works for adults!

I was talking to my friend, Aidan, who is finishing up his undergraduate degree. After venting a bit about different university teaching styles, he shared that sometimes he doesn’t know what to study for exams. I shared that I’d developed a tool that might be worth a try. I’ll let him tell you the rest!

Aidan’s Experience

The thing about good notetaking systems is that when they’re good, they feel effortless and you wonder why you haven’t always been using them. As a student with as-yet undiagnosed ADHD, that’s not easy to find. Most of Dr. Dymond’s audience, I know, are teachers and parents of children much younger than my 28 years, but bear with me. I’m a graduating undergraduate student with a 3.9 GPA, am starting a business, and have concrete near-future plans for graduate school — none of which would have been possible without figuring out how to accept that things meant for neurotypical people aren’t always going to work for me.

I’ve always been a bit fanatical about notes and work. As a kid, learning was always easy — if I was interested in the subject — and notes weren’t required, nor studying. Topics I wasn’t interested in or didn’t have an aptitude for? I ignored them, and usually had sympathetic teachers able to help me achieve the bare minimum to move on to the next grade. I still use a calculator for basic multiplication and division. As I moved into high school though, notes became necessary. They were never useful to me, but I had to appear to be paying attention — enthusiasm went a long way in helping my teachers look the other way when my work wasn’t quite up to scratch in STEM subjects. In university, I started out by doing the same — taking notes because everyone else did, but once taken the notes went into a stack of papers on my desk and never moved.

I tried, repeatedly, to find a notetaking system that worked for me, from Cornell to verbatim transcripts, but nothing worked. It wasn’t until 2018 when I slowly started piecing together what I needed, but it was still time-consuming and tedious, and more concentration went into the process of taking the notes than the content of the notes. Then, Dr. Dymond asked me to try her system. Everything changed.

Dr. Dymond’s note system is meant for younger people than me, at an earlier stage of studying, but the system works. I was able to easily adapt it to my wide range of university subjects (including STEM, my high-school bogeyman, but now my life’s passion, along with specialized humanities courses), as well as to the software I use for notetaking (Notion, a fantastic app which is free for academic email addresses). Tagging things, categorizing individual pieces of information, is how my brain works best, and I think it’s how a lot of neurodiverse brains work best. It’s hard for me to see big pictures, and make connections, but having easy-to-remember and quick-to-write combinations of letters and emotions makes it much easier. I grasp the significance of events, people, dates, and so on, now, because of the simple addition of an emoji to the margin. I can analyze and synthesize the things I’m learning in a way that other systems couldn’t provide. What notetaking system, apart from one specifically made for people on the spectrum, would integrate a way to keep track of the emotional significance of events? Where I used to write “1655-1660 Civil War”, I now write “1655-1660 Civil War” but a sad face emoji in the margins lets me see how that event fits with what came before and after it — happy times, sad times, confusing times, etc. I can make connections between what before were mostly meaningless pieces of data. I finally feel like I’m grasping what my neurotypical classmates grasp instantly. At the end of every “session” of notes, whether they are on a reading or lecture, I limit myself to 3 main concepts in the little question/main concepts box. Since I have trouble figuring out what’s important, only allowing 3 forces me to prioritize.

Notetaking, made easier. Aidan ends his notes by identifying the main concepts and lingering questions.

Having a notetaking system meant specifically for folks like me means I’m able to finally succeed. I still apply myself to too many things at once — I doubt anything will stop that — but when I do, I’m more successful. I can see so many applications for the system Dr. Dymond has created — for every level of education. I think I’ll probably always think more about how I’m doing something than what I’m doing, but this tool adds layers to my notes that I couldn’t have found before, and does it with less work.

Thanks for contributing, Aidan! I’m so glad you’ve adapted this system in a way that helps you!

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