What is it with aesthetically pleasing notes?

Are they really worth the time and energy?

Whether you love it or hate it, back-to-school season is here. This also means that back-to-school content is flooding your Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok accounts.

Although I love a good “tips and tricks” guide on how to be successful in school, I can’t help but notice it’s always the same advice, given by the same Type A people.

Getting ready to go back to school now is not just about making sure your pencil is sharpened, but also ensuring that all aspects of your life are in order before beginning this new chapter.

You have to clean out your work space, test out all your pens, buy new supplies, have healthy breakfast and lunch ideas ready, all to guarantee an even better student lifestyle.

Having your life organized makes sense to start the new school year, but why do we often feel the need to be so aesthetic in our organization?

In this digital age, a digital cleanse of all our unneeded documents, photos, contacts, etc., on all our devices is also necessary.

Speaking of devices, the iPad-for-note-taking craze is upon us. Maybe I’m late to the trend but I have to admit I tried it last year and it really has changed my life for the better.

My back is thanking me for carrying just a small tablet that contains all my readings and notes for five classes.

You could tell me that since people have been typing notes on their laptops for years now, what’s so special about the iPad? Well, let me tell you, the iPad has an aesthetic that the laptop doesn’t.

As someone who always liked to doodle, highlight and annotate my readings, I can do that with my iPad and still feel the satisfaction of writing on a good old piece of paper — almost.

I’m not the only iPad note-taker who will advocate for this; it’s what all the studying content online will tell you, too.

Whether it’s on their tablet or in a notebook, the experts in note-taking all have one thing in common: their notes are aesthetically pleasing.

But does looking at pretty notes really equal better studying?

In a study conducted by neurobiologists Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki, subjects were presented with visual art while they listened to music. They would then rate the songs and art pieces in order to measure whether their brain activity changed or increased once put in contact with stimuli they considered “beautiful.”

The study found that when looking at something they found beautiful, brain activity intensified for the subjects, including increased blood-flow in the medial orbito-frontal cortex, which has been associated with reward, pleasure and judgment.

So on top of just finding them pretty, looking at aesthetically-pleasing notes might give us a sense of accomplishment and reward, but this does not automatically mean we will retain information better.

A lot of the time, aesthetically pleasing notes are more than just pretty; they’re organized, detailed and colour-coded — all of which helps people to review the material better.

On the flip side, you can have detailed, organized and well-structured notes without them being aesthetically pleasing.

So why does all the studying content we see online have such a focus on aesthetics?

After reading the aforementioned study I realized that for me, it might be to feel a little sense of control in what seems like an overwhelming challenge: university.

Even though I know deep down that it doesn’t do anything for me academically, I will continue to try my best at calligraphy and highlighting my sub-titles this semester just to make me feel better.

Student Life

What I learned from working at the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities

On Feb. 6, I was reading Jean Vanier’s “Loneliness” from his book Becoming Human as part of the required reading for a graduate course in the department of Theological Studies. In 1964, Vanier founded L’Arche, a community where people with disabilities could share their lives together. His remarks about the “love that grows in and through belonging,” the “discovery of our common humanity” and “working together for the common good” made me reflect upon my own experience of working with students with disabilities and my desire to communicate and share my experiences with my fellow Concordians. 

I thought about contacting The Concordian for some time, but an idea never came into fruition until now; I thought what I had to say would not be interesting enough or worthy of publication. Yet, as I was reading through “Loneliness,” I could not help but be overwhelmed by a deep feeling of sadness, but also hope.

I came across the opportunity to help students with disabilities in 2014, while still an undergraduate student in the process of completing a double major in Honours English literature and theological studies. During this time, I volunteered as a note-taker, still unaware that I could somehow get paid (not that the money should matter for such a great cause, even though when you’re a university student, let’s face it, it kind of does). At the end of every semester, I would receive an acknowledgment of gratitude in the form of a certificate and a $20 gift card to the Concordia Bookstore.

One day, I asked the Access Centre for Students with Disabilities (ACSD) if there were other opportunities to receive financial compensation for my notes. Having the opportunity to work with all of these wonderfully talented students has fulfilled me in a way that striving for success in our capitalist society can’t. They continue to remind me of what it means to be human every single day.

Disabilities should not define a person—they are merely a part of the person, not their entire story. These students have demonstrated ambition, strength, courage and perseverance despite all the odds, obstacles, stereotypes and judgments thrown their way. I can see drive in each and every one of them to make a name for themselves, to succeed and prove all of those who doubted them wrong. 

I am currently employed with the ACSD as a note-taker, tutor, exam invigilator and most recently, academic coach. I have taken notes for students in courses that span several programs. The way I see it is I’m basically getting paid to learn while making a difference in these students’ lives. I can see the difference I’ve made just by looking at them. Seeing a smile on their faces and just the manner in which they thank me and have continued to request me as their note-taker and tutor for future classes has been so gratifying to me. 

Although my experiences can’t be compared to Vanier’s tremendous output in providing a secure environment for people with disabilities to flourish and grow, working with students with disabilities has taught me a great deal about what it means to be human. Working in retail, I’m exposed to countless people on a daily basis who always seem very rushed. We sometimes forget what it means to be human, to take a step back and be grateful for just being alive on this particular day. We would be so much kinder and more humble towards one another if we took the time to reflect on ourselves and the vulnerability of the human condition. 

Working with students with disabilities is like being in front of a mirror; they mirror your own humanity and vulnerability. Notes are a gift and a sign of hope which remind students with disabilities of their own humanity and their potential to succeed. Rather than simply disregarding invitations to participate as a volunteer note-taker, I encourage students to share their notes with other students in need. It really doesn’t take that much, especially if students are already typing their own notes on a laptop. All you need to do is upload your notes onto the site. Imagine the difference it would make if more students joined; if we all come together, we can make an even greater difference. 

Graphic by Sasha Axenova

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