SOME HINTS ON GOOD FIELD NOTES

General Comments

There is a couple of conflicting pedagogical viewpoints on how to teach students to take good field notes.  One is the "sink-or-swim" school and the other is the "lead by example" school.  The latter assumes everyone thinks and organizes like the instructor and does not allow students the intellectual exercise of organizing their own thoughts in a manner most useful to them but also in a way that conveys information to the reader.  The former is frustrating for the student at first because they start with literally no idea what to do (what's important to observe and how does one go about organizing a field notebook).  On the other hand, the student has the freedom to develop their own observational skills and note organization and style to best suit how they think/work.  Note-taking and understanding of the subject matter evolve together.  The trick for the instructor is to correct serious note-taking problems before they become ingrained and have to be unlearned.  Unlearning is harder than learning it seems to me.  I prefer a modified sink or swim method with considerable "guidance" by the instructor.  Herein, is the guidance.

There is no conflict regarding the importance of good note-taking.  Regardless of what kind of physical scientist you end up being, good note-taking is critical, imperative, tantamount to success or failure.  Unfortunately, like anything else, it takes practice and you never stop learning.  Most of the general hints below will fall into two categories.  First, simple strategies/conventions for organizing your notes to follow and record your thoughts and observations.  Second, some comments about the appropriate level of detail.  How much or how little recording to do in the field is a constant battle but there are some benchmarks.  Theoretically at least, you or a total stranger should be able to look at your field notes years later and recall/decipher the pertinent details of the soil profile, landscape element, or whatever natural phenomena your notes were taken about.  Moreover, professional field notes are legal documents and should be written as if someone other than yourself will read them.  So, here goes.

1)  General observations are important and it's worth doing this section right.  Your notes for each day or lab or whatever should begin with general comments about:  field conditions, objectives of your work, landscape setting, and vegetation.  Landscape setting is critical because of Catenary relationships.  Other observations about landscape will provide insight into the five soil-forming factors.  Your observations of the soils themselves may be consistent with what you observe, or not.  In either case you need to start thinking about process and connections.  Initial notes taken  when you first get out of the truck is a good place to start this intellectual progression.  This is also a good place to note your strategy for sampling the landscape.  You can't dig up the whole place.  How did you go about deciding where to sample?  On what basis were your sample sites selected?  Related to 1, you need to record where you are!  Ideally, with legal descriptions, lat./long., or UTM grids.  Short of that, as much detail about location as you can.  If you look back at your notes years later, and many of you will, you need to be able to relocate where the notes are from.

2) It is useful to put a map in here too.  Not just a map of the location but a proximity map too.  It is often useful to sketch out the local landscape picture in a quick block or profile diagram and show where your sample sites are that way.  I need to see field maps and sketches.

3)  Level of detail.  If you look at a County Soil Survey, in the series description section near the front you will see a field description of the typical pedon of each soil series.  Look at the level of detail there and be aware that this is compiled from field notes.  Some observations in that person's notes are not recorded in this second-order data compilation.  Generalizations and data agglomerations have already occurred.  Can a similar soil profile description be compiled from the information in your field notes?  You should be able to do so.  Remember too that the following observations must be recorded for each horizon.  Cheat sheets and consistent organization will help you avoid data gaps.  Observations to include (horizon by horizon) in no particular order are:

horizon thickness and boundary -- (architecture - smooth, wavy, etc., distinctness - vertical distance over which the boundary occurs, and morphological basis for defining a master and subhorizons); 
color - describe the color of each horizon using the Munsell color book (hue, value, chroma) including insides and outside of peds (if present) and colors of other significant features (see below).
texture -- need to make a % estimate for sand, silt, and clay using textural classes determined by hand, it is also good to visually estimate the size (vfs, vs, ms, cs, vcs), roundness, sphericity, and lithology of the sand; 
structure -- grade, size, shape, variations and range, any change with depth, need to point out what measurement is being provided (diameter, median axes);
consistency - includes plasticity, toughness, stickiness; 
inclusions, coats, stains, mottles, skins -- size, shape, distribution (in what horizons are the phenomena encountered, are they on all ped surfaces or just some?  Which ones?), orientation (parallel to the surface or…), lithology (what are they made of?  How did you arrive at this "conclusion"), shape, distinctness (are they faint or clear, diffuse or sharply bounded or what?), frequency (few, common, many), color - (inside and outside of coated peds, correct and fastest way to record a color observation is 10YR [value]/[chroma]).  Again, the benchmark is, "are your notes sufficient to prepare a soil profile description like those in the County Soil Surveys?"

4)  Related to 3, we should by now be using the correct terminology most of the time.  "Mottle" means a specific thing.  "Fine" means a specific thing.  "Moderate' means a specific thing.  "Abrupt boundary" means a specific thing.  "A lot" conveys less information than does "many" in soil description.  "Chocolate Mousse" is not equivalent to 10YR3/4 (there is a place in your notes for informal terminology, don't get me wrong,  but…these informal terms should be matched up to a formal one somewhere in your notes).  Try to use qualitative soil terms like few, many, common or faint, diffuse, clear in the accepted manner.  These terms and others are in chapter 3 of the Soil Survey Manual.   

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