Field Notes for the First Time

Most people in college sit in a lecture hall and take notes from a powerpoint with their notebook on a desk, and for me, gaze out the windows wishing to be outside. Taking notes here in Santorini is much different, we’re outside, in the heat, with a handy field pack on our back and our cherished field notebook in our hand. Field notebooks are a geologist’s most prized possession and contain loads of information within their pages. I came into the NAU in Greece program with only taking one geology class and I had no experience with field notes. I will show what it is like to take field notes for the first time, and how to make good descriptions without ever doing them before for the ultimate souvenir.

First, the basics of a field notebook, for a complete notebook you must have these things: a pencil (no pens!),  pages numbered, table of contents, locations, date, time, correct spelling, and your information in the front in case you lose it.


Figure 1: The basics of a field notebook, table of contents, numbered pages, personal information, and entry header

One of the most important components of a field notebook is to have good descriptions, rock descriptions in particular. I had no idea how to do a rock description, I didn’t know what words to use or how to organize the description, or let alone how to scientifically describe a rock. In my first rock description, I believe I used the incredibly scientific phrase: cotton candy like. I have since learned that the “cotton candy” look inside a rock is called frothy. I will now show you how to correctly do a rock description.


First, you must pick a location for where the rock you are about to describe is going to come from, that location is called an outcrop, a rock face you can easily see and walk up to. Once you have picked a good outcrop, walk around it from far away and note what you see. This is referred to as macro, one of the three scales used to describe rocks. Macro observations include walking around the outcrop, and noting things such as the general color, height, outcrop pattern (overhanging, slope), vegetation, how many layers (beds) do you see. Once you have your macro observations written down in your field book, it is time to approach the outcrop for the mezo scale.


Figure 2: Fira Quarry outcrop with Kendall for scale (1.76 meters)


The mezo scale is going up to the outcrop and using your hands and rock hammer to look at rocks. When doing this note what happens to the rock as you touch the outcrop, is it falling apart, can you take rocks out of it, what do the rocks look like. This will help you determine what the sorting is for the particular outcrop, sorting can be anywhere from very poorly sorted to very well sorted. Once you have written down those observations you can move on to choosing a rock.

Determining the sorting level of rocks only applies to clastic rocks, which was the type of rock we were describing that day at Fira Quarry. This example is how to describe clastic rocks.

The weathered surface is the outside surface of the rock, it is what has been affected by weather and has changed throughout its existence. This is the surface to begin the description with. Keep in mind that everyone may have a different rock description, and everyone can organize it any way they please, what is important is that you are consistent with every rock description. Shown below are my descriptions from Fira Quarry.


Figure 3: My first field notes ever from Fira Quarry descriptions


As you can see, in Figure 3 my notes on the first day of field note taking are pretty terrible. They have messy handwriting and are not very organized, I knew right away that I needed to improve my field note taking. If I have learned anything from this program it is that practice makes perfect and everything is a learning process, and as long as you want to learn and be a better field note taker, then it will happen.

Some of the common mistakes made in field note taking include having long paragraphs, misspelling, un-legible handwriting, not making a note of your location every day, and lack of organization. For me, my most common mistakes in taking field notes are messy handwriting and lack of organization.

I decided to take the time to rewrite the information from that day to make it legible and organized. This is what the rewritten notes look like.


Figure 6: Cleaner notes of macro, mezo, and micro scale and the descriptions. 

In Figure 6, the notes are more organized and more legible. I find it useful to go back and rewrite what is messy in the notes so that it can be read by other people and by yourself in years to come.


As mentioned in the beginning, taking notes while doing field geology is very different than in a classroom. For this day we were at Fira Quarry, an outcrop in Fira, and it was the first day of fieldwork in class, which means the first day of field note taking. I learned quickly that note taking in the field requires walking, writing, looking, and listening all at the same time. My tips for taking notes while in the field are to sit down to write notes if you need to and keep your notes as organized as possible by using bullet points and headers. Something else I have learned while the class continues is to leave some space to add notes later on if needed when collaborating with classmates later.

One of the most important features of a good field notebook is the sketches in it. Anyone can go and snap a picture of a rock and then walk away two seconds later. But if the time is taken to sit down in front of the outcrop and sketch, it will be more memorable and be in your field notebook for later reference. Below is a picture of my quick sketch of the outcrop at Fira Quarry.

Figure 5: Quick sketch of the Fira Quarry outcrop

My field notebook has hours worth of work in it and has become more and more valuable as time goes on. I didn’t know before going on this trip that a field notebook truly is the science of geology. 

Descriptions are hard to do and I guarantee the first time you pick up a rock you will think “how the heck to I describe a rock?” It is okay to start with descriptions such as “cotton candy like” because it’s a start and as time goes on rock descriptions will be easier and good descriptions will make a good field notebook.

Most people who come to Santorini are here for vacation and come home with a trinket that says “SANTORINI” on it, and that is their souvenir for their time here. My field notebook is a personal, scientific, handwritten, most amazing souvenir a person could get from visiting Santorini.



4 thoughts on “Field Notes for the First Time

  1. The description is really a good read and informative. I can say that sketching the area, site or the object really helps to understand the premises and throw light on new sets of observations which are not clearly noticed while clicking a picture.

  2. I wish we had had this post before coming to Santorini! I think it will be so helpful to future Greece study abroad students when they start taking field notes and have no idea how to do a rock description.

  3. I really like this post. The figures are excellent and well-described (Kendall for scale makes me happy). I think “how-to” posts are just so informative and also a great way to approach the writing because it can easily be very personal. Overall great job.

  4. Hi Natalie,

    Knowing that geology is not a very popular major or profession to many people it is nice to here some inside information on what it is like to actually be a geologist and your description of how to take research notes in this field is a great way to begin to understand what it means to be a geologist. You have clear explanations on how to take notes and how to describe a rock, knowing that ‘describing a rock’ may be easier said than done at first. Making goals to improve your note taking while doing research is both relatable and inspiring to other geologists so that too was good addition to your entry. To further improve your skills try reading your post out loud to yourself before posting it; there were some grammatical errors in your fifth paragraph that could be easily prevented through close reading. Although you did do a great job of mentioning a few tips in your entry to help others improve their research note. Like actually hand drawing the rock formation to help better memorize the structure rather than simply taking a picture of it. Tips like that will better your research entries and help others to better themselves as well. You did a very good job on this post, keep going.

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