Atomic essay #18 – how I read for research: part one (pre-reading)

I've spent a lot my life being disorganised and forgetful.

Atomic essay #18 – how I read for research: part one (pre-reading)
Photo by Lilly Rum / Unsplash

I've spent a lot my life being disorganised and forgetful. Now that I'm spending more time reading to improve my subject and pedagogical knowledge and undertaking programmes of study (currently the Chartered Teacher Programme, hopefully an MA next), I need a system whereby I can not only recall what I read, but can use what I read to form my own ideas.

I've spent quite a lot of time exploring various ideas around personal knowledge management. I've found a lot of what's in the zeitgeist a bit overcomplicated; the last thing I want is to spend time messing about with software and getting lost in an overcomplicated system when I could be reading, thinking and creating.

Now that I'm settled, I've started to outline my reading workflow below. I've tried to keep it app-agnostic. I use an app called Logseq, but you could do this all paper or in pretty much any app. At the heart of this system are a few key ideas:

  • I want to be able to remember not just what I read, but what mattered about it
  • I want to be able to let knowledge and ideas accrete across texts and over time
  • I want what I read to inform my outputs.

The system I'm using owes much to the Zettelkasten and the Evergreen Notes systems. This post will look at how I prepare to read; part two will focus on how I take notes from individual texts; part three will look at how I connect ideas from different texts together; and part four will explain how I use the system to create my own content.

1: Know what I'm reading for

My current project is the CTeach OSTE exam; I'm looking at effective feedback in the classroom. Knowing this means that I'm reading for a purpose. I make sure that I've got a master note for the topic or project that everything I do will link back to – this helps to control the mass of notes and ideas that will be generated and have prevent the loss of same.

2: Pre-reading

My project page.  The TODO parts are a feature of Logseq that allows you to turn any bullet into a to-do list entry, which is helpful.  The items in [[]] are links to other notes; # denote tags to keep things organised.

My project page. The TODO parts are a feature of Logseq that allows you to turn any bullet into a to-do list entry, which is helpful. The items in [[]] are links to other notes; # denote tags to keep things organised.

Before I start reading, I make a reading list. In this case, I've got one from the Chartered College, but I add my own stuff to it, too. I keep the list updated as I go with what I've read, when I read it and what notes have been taken.

I also go through my Evergreen Notes and bring out any that might help me with the project. I'll explain Evergreens fully in Part 3, but here's a quick run-through now:

  • An Evergreen Note is about one idea. Because of this, it needs to be pretty short and concise.
  • The point is that it is written entirely in my own words, like a mini-essay.
  • The EN should be written with other notes in mind – because it's about one idea, it can and should be linked to other notes. Logseq makes this easy; it uses bi-directional, wiki-style links to associate notes. This feature is not vital, though – you just need a way to see what other notes link to a given note.
  • You want the links because this is where fresh insight comes from – making new connections breeds new insight.

Then I write down my ideas and beliefs about the topic currently, plus any questions that are top of mind. These ideas and questions help me to engage actively with whatever I'm reading: I'm looking to have my preconceptions challenged and my questions answered.

At the top are links to notes I’ve taken before that might help with this project; below are the questions I’d like answered.  I’ll add to these questions as need be as I read.

At the top are links to notes I’ve taken before that might help with this project; below are the questions I’d like answered. I’ll add to these questions as need be as I read.

Once this is in place, I'm ready to start reading, which I'll look at in part 2.