When I first had Circus Ponies Notebooks recommended to me on an online forum, the name gave me associations to a note book for fourteen year olds girls filled with pink little ponies. Thankfully, I decided to have a look and discovered a wonderful app which I now use on a daily basis for my work.
CPN is a virtual notebook. It comes with a range of features such as tabs, writing pages, outline pages, sticky notes, sticky flags, the ability to record voice annotations, insert media clips and pdf files, quite a bit more, so it’s a very versatile tool. In this post, however, I want to focus on how I use it for note taking for my literature reviews. Having used Microsoft Word a lot in the past, I was looking for a more dynamic option that would allow me to have more things ‘in one place’ and to have my notes better connected than just a folder structure. CPN is now my primary tool for literature review notes.
CPN allows you to have several notebooks, and one of mine is simply called ‘Review’. Within that book, I have two kinds of pages: Divider Pages and Writing Pages.
Divider Pages help you divide your notebook into chunks, and come with a tab (which you can remove or rename as you wish). I use the divider pages to define the key thematic areas for my review, which are sub divided into two categories: review by source and review by topic.
Review by source means that the writing pages organised so that each publication has a separate entry, and the pages are listed by author name in the contents list.
Review by topic means that the writing pages are organised according to keywords or topics. So, for example, in my section on ‘Assessment for Learning – by topic’, I have one writing page dedicated to ‘definitions’, one to ‘impediments to reform’, one on ‘assessment criteria’, and so on.
Here is a screen shot:
This is the Contents page of my ‘Review’ notebook. You can expand and collapse the Divider Page headings as you see fit, and it this screenshot the ‘AfL by topic’ is collapsed (although you can see the pages belonging to that section in the contents card to the left), and the ‘AfL by source’ is expanded. To go to the page you want, you click on the blue dot to the left of the writing page headings.
To the right of the notebook, you will see the different tabs (a bit difficult to see in this screen shot because I have so many), and to the far right, you will see the colour palette.
Writing Pages are, as the name suggests, for writing. This is in contrast to Notes Pages, which I won’t be talking much about here – but notes pages are your choice for outlining, inserting media, arranging different text boxes around on a page, and so on. All types of pages in CPN can be easily rearranged by dragging them up or down on the contents page.
When I review literature by source, I create a new writing page with the name of author, year of publication and (part of) the title as a heading. I then create a link to the relevant pdf file in the writing page, by quickly locating the file in finder using Alfred, and then dragging the file over to the notebook page. You can add a pdf file for annotation, or just as a link. I just add the link. And from there, I just continue adding other information and notes as appropriate, using colour coding and the highlight function to emphasise text. In the end, it looks something like this:
Another thing I like to do is to create links between pages. You can create two kinds of links, one to web pages, and one to other pages in your notebook. I find the latter particularly helpful for my ‘review by topic’ sections; in those pages I will usually link to the relevant ‘review by source’ page when I refer to particular authors. For example, in my ‘impediments to reform’ topic page, I have a bullet list of different factors that are known to constrain assessment reform, and beneath each bullet point I have a list of authors who address the topic in the bullet point, with a link to their individual pages.
Another thing I really like about this app is that it comes with an iPad version, which I keep synced through Dropbox using MacDropAny. This means that all my review notes are readily available when my iPad is with me.
Finally, I like the multidex feature. This helps you find stuff when you’re not sure where it went, and lists your information by a range of indexes, such as web links, attachment, stickers, numbers, or, simply, by words. Here’s an example of the word index:
This is just a limited glance of what CPN can do for you, it has a range of features that I haven’t really gone into here, but at the moment I am happy with this particular work flow for reviewing literature. It’s very convenient to be able to flick back and forth between different topics and authors when I’m writing my an article, it’s easy to ‘connect the dots’ in terms of grouping sources and linking material to each other, the interface is pretty user friendly, and CPN customer support is quite responsive. I also have dedicated notebooks for ‘theory’ and ‘method’, as well as a more general notebook which I use for meeting notes, conference preparations, and so on. I recommend checking out this app, if you haven’t already.
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If you want more information about how to use CPN for academic purposes, check out this informative blog post from Organizing Creativity.