Having been a student from the time I was 4 years old until I earned my Ph.D. at the age of 26, I learned how to take notes to document the important things in my life. My note taking abilities have served me well in my career. I have calendars dating back almost 40 years; if I need to know what I was doing on a particular day, it takes me mere minutes to look it up. I also write verbatim notes of conversations I have on the telephone, including with clients. My notes are dated and include a list of everyone who participated in the phone call. I also write verbatim note when I am assisting my clients in selecting a jury. My notes reflect exactly what was said by each prospective juror, such that they can be relied upon to know which jurors to excuse and which jurors to keep. In court, my notes can easily be verified by the court reporter’s transcription, in the instances when the opposing counsel chooses to challenge me on the accuracy of what I wrote. There are many times in most people’s lives when writing things down is preferable to merely listening to what is being said or observed, then trying to remember it later. There is a lot of research in cognitive psychology that has revealed note taking makes the perceiver an active participant in his/her environment and active perceivers learn, then remember, more than other people. Think of how much we can remember about a doctor’s diagnosis when we write down exactly what the doctor told us, instead of saying, “Oh my. The doctor was talking so fast and using such big words that I have no idea what she meant.” The act of merely listening to what one is being told is passive and as such, does not lead to the same degree of learning or remembering as listening, watching, etc. while taking notes. One’s note taking habits, like other personality traits, are formed in early life and as such, are not easily learned later in life. This is not to say, however, that learning to take notes is impossible. With a little effort, note taking as a memory enhancement tool can be learned. So, instead of acting like the poor student who is always asking me to copy my notes, try taking them for yourself and see if you learn something!
As we have written, many of these posts are at least partially inspired by our experience as employers. By way of background, I fully agree with Melissa about the importance of note taking, though my notes are usually more cryptic and abbreviated than hers. (I don’t know how she does it the way she does, but enough digression.) My point is that, with employees, one factor that has proven to separate the good and not so good performers is note taking. I have been surprised when some employees fail to take notes in one on one meetings with us, when being given tasks to complete. And, I am even more surprised when some employees have shown up to employee staff meetings with no pen or paper. We have never employed anyone with a “photographic memory,” meaning it is impossible they can remember everything that was discussed, or even the tasks assigned to the individual. So, it is perhaps no surprise that those who take notes, and who use those notes to organize their work, perform better than those who do not. There is a career lesson here – and more, taking notes shows the boss that you are listening and “tuned in.” In our world with jury decision making, this seems to be true as well. In most jurisdictions, jurors are permitted to take notes during a trial. As a result, mock jurors are also permitted to take notes and are supplied with pads and pens. When note taking was first allowed, many attorneys were almost paranoid about it asking, “What are they writing?” or “Why did they take notes when ___ was said?”. The fact that jurors were taking notes became a slight distraction. This has faded as attorneys began to understand the value of the note taking. It is obvious that some people are better note takers than others, a fact we observe first hand in watching mock jurors deliberate. And, while some of them struggle to find their note on certain issues, generally, it appears that the notes promote memory recall, just as social scientists would expect. Jurors work through conflicts in notes taken by different jurors such that the differences in notes provide for discussion to resolve the conflict. Clearly note taking enhances human memory and interactions in many settings and in many ways.