Taking notes

When Clay Shirky (journalist, technologist, professor, visionary, author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus) wrote a blog post about his decision to ban laptops in his graduate classes, the blogosphere’s dialogue on technology in classrooms took on a new tenor. It became impossible to say that only Luddites believe screens and schools don’t mix. Both sides of the conversation were legitimized.

The next step in the conversation is to examine nuance between the poles of “screens always everywhere!” and “no screens whatsoever!” because the conversation at the edges of the spectrum has been well documented. Here’s the one place I want to zoom in: note-taking.

As far as I can tell, most of the negative pushback around screens and schools centers on note-taking. The act of students taking notes is, for many, what makes school look and feel like school. It’s embedded pretty deeply in our routines and our expectations. In my experience as a student, note-taking serves two purposes: 

(1) To record the information explored in class. Having documentation of the things that fly by too quickly in the classroom can be valuable to return to later.

(2) To process information actively by organizing it and documenting it. Even if you don’t return to the notes later, the act of creating them can help you retain their contents in your head.

When I transitioned back to the other side of the classroom as a student this fall, I could not even consider taking pencil and paper notes. Dedicating hours and months and semesters to documenting words that would not be searchable, not easily editable, and available only on one device — that is, in a paper notebook — sounded like a terrible idea. I signed up for an Evernote account and haven’t looked back since.

And although I haven’t looked back, sometimes I look around… and that tells a very different story. I am studying Learning Science and Technology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and the level of second-hand distraction available all around me (classmates checking Facebook, writing emails, scanning Twitter) is astounding. Think of all of the layers of surprise here: graduate-level students — at a great university — paying top dollar for every moment in class — studying education — and specifically technology and education — and still there are abundant distractions available on my classmates’ desks. Many professors expect us to bring our laptops to class, and most students seem to take notes on their laptops. But here’s the problem:

Taking notes shouldn’t take more than, let’s say, about 40% of a student’s time in class. Any more than that and you are essentially transcribing what’s happening in class instead of synthesizing, organizing, and thoughtfully documenting what you are learning. Anything more than 40% and it’d probably be more effective to create an audio or audio-video recording of the class to return to later instead. (Apologies if that 40% strikes you as low — I recognize that I’m on the low-end of the spectrum. I probably stick around 20-25% as my cut-off personally. Think of it as x% if you’d prefer.)

The challenge then comes with the other 60% of the time (or 100%-x% if you’re following your own figures). What is the screen doing for you when you are not typing notes? Active learning happens in all of the moments in between those blips of documentation, and it’s surprisingly hard for students, young and old, to come to grips with that. Just because you can jot down a few notes between social media updates doesn’t mean you’re paying attention. I, as a teacher, have a tremendous responsibility to teach that to my students. I don’t want to get rid of screens in my classroom; I feel obligated to help students address that 60% of their learning experience. The fact that students everywhere seem to be failing with this doesn’t make me want to surrender to it and avoid it. There’s got to be another way.

So here’s what I propose: let’s stop having a conversation about whether or not we should ban laptops from classrooms. Instead let’s start a conversation about taking notes and see where we go from there. Here are some of the places I think we can begin:

  • Why are students taking notes? Is it to have records of class material?
    • If so, why should all students be taking notes separately? Could students take notes collaboratively? Or could two students per day be responsible for taking notes?
    • Clay Shirky tells us that we live in an age of abundance, and information is no longer a scarce resource. Why should students race to take notes at pace with the class when there are dozens of other way to generate documentation of a 40-minute class? The nuggets of information that emerge in class should not be so hard to collect and preserve.
    • Many students have positive note-taking experiences by having note-buddies to share note-taking responsibilities with, or by taking notes after the class is over (rather than during class). Why not spread these techniques to more students?
    • How many students return to their notes later anyway? Are we sure these records are worth the expense we’re suffering to create them?
  • Why are students taking notes? Is it to provide an active way to process material?
    • Clearly note-taking on screens is not a good way for many students to process material. So rather than get rid of the screens, let’s reimagine our expectations about what it looks like to be a responsible student, and let’s try giving students opportunities to process material in new, even more compelling ways.
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4 thoughts on “Taking notes

  1. I noticed the same behavior in my graduate school classes 10 years ago, and you’ve confirmed that the distractability of adult students hasn’t necessarily improved because they’re “digital natives.” This is part of what motivates me to want to develop a program to help K-12 students learn self-discipline around the use of personal computing/communication devices, so they can actively choose when to attend or not attend to the screen as an internal decision for their personal benefit. It could be too late for adults to learn this sort of self-discipline, but if we start with children when they’re young and choose the right kinds of practices, we may be able to help our students learn it, much as they learn conflict resolution practices.

    RE: note-taking, what I found worked best for me is to take notes by hand during class, and then transcribe them to digital form afterwards; that provided a good review of the material I had chosen to note, plus “fixed” it in a searchable format. Some research suggests that hand writing notes during class leads to better retention and integration than typed notes, and that is how I feel I learn best — it’s like handwriting and typing use two different pathways in my brain, with handwriting better integrating into the thinking/learning process and typing being more of an “automatic” task, more akin to taking dictation. As for sharing the load, it might be useful to rotate the responsibility for “full notes” of a lecture to one or two students in a study group or to record the lecture (if permissible), leaving the other students to take personal notes for only those points or observations they feel are notable, freeing them up to concentrate on the content during the lecture.

  2. Tom, love your suggestion of allowing time to transcribe hand written notes to digital at the end of class or assigning it as homework, I have noticed too much note taking has become dictation taking which allows the student to zone into the act recording and frankly, they may as well be on Facebook. I like your idea of thinking about the why take notes question. I have tried the assigned note taker route, some students REALLY want to take their own notes, so I think what we need is a allowing kids to do what is best for them. If they want note buddies that would be fine…I have done what Jeanette calls her “socratic” exercise and it works quite well as part of this combination idea: let’s say there are 15 students. 5 students are given discussion questions to prepare for the class, they sit in the middle and hold a kind of “salon” about the story or poem (no notes or note taking), 5 students are designated note takers, they do not speak just take hand notes, 5 students are audience who may ask questions during Q & A…this has been quite successful in English class, the 5 note-takers then disseminate the notes digitally to the rest of the class. Colin, well stated….

  3. Very timely Colin! The survey of students, parents and faculty all mention the issue of distraction – 1st hand or 2nd hand – caused by the 1-1 environment.

    I think that it’s important to ask why the students are taking notes – what they need to do with them is important factor regarding the how and if they are taken. Will students need to recall the information in a test or will they need to analyze and synthesize the information in a project, or will they be writing a paper where they need only the information that supports their thesis? All different assessments that may require different note taking strategies.

    I love the idea of giving class time to reviewing the collective notes and/or for students to organize/digitize their own. I think there would be great value in having teachers and students sharing their own particular styles – both high and low tech.

  4. I guess you could say it is important to take notes so you can learn to take notes, but that begs the important question BC and others ask, why take notes? I suppose for some folks it helps them stay focused. I learned how to take notes, and found the main value was to identify the main ideas and to summarize concepts. For me though usually note taking (which until recently was only on paper, but has the same effect when taken digitally) distracted me. A better way would be to come up with questions that are asked in the moment or if that is not possible later, verbally or electronically. I believe doing this collaboratively is the most powerful way to accomplish this. If the notes primarily serve asa a source to study from for a test, perhaps the evaluation system should be re-examined or if test prep is the only raison d’etre, an outline could be provided or students could be take turns as notetakers to create the record or, of course the class could be recorded.

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