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ATD Blog

The Spiral Notebook: An Old-School Tool for Capturing Ideas and Gaining Insight

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Reflection has always been a large part of ATD Forum Labs, which are the face-to-face community meetings hosted by members and designed around specific themes. During the Labs, participants reflect individually and as a group. Typically, the Labs use well-known reflection methods, such as Ed Betof’s six-sentence stems or an activity called “What Squares?” Using these techniques helps participants focus their ideas. Most of this individual idea capture is done using handouts or note-taking guides called placemats. 

During the last two ATD Forum Labs, held on the campuses of members from Kohler and Facebook, reflection activities captured nuggets and ideas for insights and further action, such as sharing with colleagues, blogging, incorporating content ideas into curriculums, and adding to a course design. However, unlike previous Forum Labs, we simply used a spiral notebook to capture everyone’s input.   

Why a Spiral Notebook for Idea Capture? 

Spiral notebooks are old fashioned; everyone has smartphones, tablets, or laptops handy. But there are several reasons we used them—the most critical reason being that handwriting is more brain friendly, especially when it is less structured. 

According to author Margie Meacham, who facilitates ATD’s Essentials of Brain-Based Learning Program, writing and drawing are more physical than typing and, therefore, build and strengthen more neural pathways in the brain. Using a pen and paper to document can include drawing, linking, highlighting, and coding information as you capture. 

All of this involves using many different strokes, even when writing the same letter. These actions send signals to various parts of the brain, which enable deeper translation of the material. Pen and paper capture is slower than keyboard transcription. This pace allows for more digesting, conceptualizing, and summarizing, which results in higher retention and recall than keyboard transcription. Meacham emphasizes that using pen and paper is a mindful activity, as opposed to mindlessly striking keys. 

Having a specific tool like the spiral notebook for capturing insights can create more awareness of reflection. This physical tool helps focus your brain on gathering “nuggets” and capturing ideas in real time, not just when it is on the agenda. In other words, the notebook “tunes” the brain into capturing quotes, facts, and actionable ideas. The intentional “tuning” should create more discussion of ideas, tools, and approaches to add to your personal practice during the informal networking opportunities. 

Turning Ideas Into Actions 

Another benefit of the spiral notebook format for reflection is the ability to keep many documents, ideas, doodles, and notes in one place that is easy to store and reuse—even without electricity or Internet. What’s more, because you have everything in one place, it is convenient to revisit the materials at a later date for review. Review is a form of reflection; reflection is a focused way to build or deepen neural pathways in the brain. It can help you tie personal action planning to notes you have captured. However, this review also can lead to taking actions that enhance your personal practice. 

Using a matrix like the one below can guide action steps and move you from knowing to doing. Additionally, the covers of the notebooks can serve as the display for badges received from peers for contributions to the learning.  

Page #



Call to Action



Share with internal team







Internal blog



Discussion on Forum’s private Facebook page



Conduct more research



Connect with XYZ from my Forum network for further discussion




Check this link to get more information



Pin to a Pinterest page



Add this tool to content for XYZ course



Consider using this technique in a course



Message and ask for more details on this idea

The spiral notebook is a versatile tool, right?


About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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