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Note-taking and the Myth of Accessible Content

12 October, 2012

(I know, two posts in two days!)

In a comment on my last post, which was inspired by students who were not taking notes, Magistra said something that clarified part of the problem in a way that really clicked for me (not for the first time!):

And lecturing/classes are very odd because nowadays they’re almost the only form of content people are exposed to that isn’t easily repeatable. [….] Now, almost anything you want is accessible long-term and can be reviewed & rechecked multiple times. One of the biggest incentives to make detailed notes about a book was if you knew you wouldn’t have access to it again; if you’ve got the full text online forever, there’s much less pressure to do so. There is a lot more incentive to develop memorisation and note-taking skills when they are also necessary for content access, than when they’re purely intended as study methods.

Read that last clause carefully.


Yep. That’s pretty much the whole problem in a nutshell. I’d never really considered that taking lecture notes was a study method, but I think that’s what our students think. Jeepers. This explains so much. (My apologies to all of you who are thinking, “Holy crap. ADM really isn’t even as smart as the average bear if she hadn’t figured that out!”). When I talk to my students about taking notes in class, I often add something like, “A lot of what I/we talk about in class is not in the readings, but you’re responsible for it. Besides, many people find that they remember things better when they write things down.”

What I am telling them is that they should be paying close attention and writing things down because this is information that they may not be able to access again — at least not in the same way. At the very least, they should note topics I’ve mentioned, so that they can look them up later (rather than looking them up on Wikipedia as I speak). In fact, I often use most of that entire first sentence, close to verbatim. It’s been a huge cause of frustration for me, because not only do I see this affecting their work, but dammit, it just seems so insulting to be ignored. It also makes for classes that are just dire, with me asking questions about the readings and the discussion from the last session, and hearing crickets.

What they are hearing, however, is not what I am telling them. It is not the wanh-wanh-wanh of the adults in animated Peanuts specials, either, although that’s what I’ve assumed, and may sometimes be true. What they are hearing is someone who seems woefully out of touch, because after all, we can always look stuff up, right? And yes, we can. Often. Not always, though. Sometimes, we need to just know things. I’m not even talking about the whole “when the Zombie Apocalypse comes and we lose power and have to rely on our wits to survive” thing. Not that that isn’t an issue. I don’t know how to clean a carcass properly, or which parts of animals you want to remove quickly to make sure that the meat isn’t contaminated. My first aid knowledge is also pretty rusty, because, well, I can always look it up on the internet! I don’t know any of my friends’ phone numbers by heart. If I only had one phone call, it would have to be my mom, my uncle, or X, (or someone on the university exchange, since I do know extensions!) because they are the only people in my life whose numbers I knew before about four cell phones ago. Oh, or my best friend. I know her number. At any rate, we need to know some things without having to look them up.

As I wrote that, I was thinking about how class discussion is so awful when people can’t recall basic information. And then I thought about what conversation would be like if we all relied on looking stuff up. Can you imagine having any sort of intelligent conversation — the sort of conversation that lets us get to know each other, the sort of conversation that gets all sorts of intellectual and emotional sparks flying, the sort of conversation that binds human societies together — if we had to look everything up? I freely admit that I love it when I have an internet connection for my iPod (no smart phone for me!) and can look things up if I need to. But imagine a conversation between people of different generations, or different countries, or even people whose interests are really different, in a world where more than half of the people have not acquired enough information about the world around them to have a framework for what they are looking up. One person talking about massacres as a result of a coup in another country, and how it will affect gas prices, and the others all at various stages of the conversation, unable to respond because they are looking up the country, the government, other places where oil might be found…(because seriously, why else do many westerners discuss foreign affairs, except in terms of how it might affect us or to feel some sort of superiority?). Longest conversation ever.

Just like some of my classes. Longest pauses ever. I must choose between allowing students to open their computers and/or read through books and whatever meagre notes they might have, if they do at all, or waiting in silence while they sit, confused and frustrated, sullen because my expectations are unrealistic, because I am being unfair by not allowing them their tools, while I feel all the joy go out of my day. Or I can start again, tomorrow, and talk again about notes and access to information. Because sometimes we just don’t have access. Sometimes, and I think most of the time, we need to be able to communicate with each other as people with agency. We worry about helping our students find their voices. Well, if they always look stuff up, because they always can, how do they find their own voices, unmediated by someone else? Where is their agency, where is the empowerment we talk about, if they are not themselves creators, agents? The unknowingly passive have no power.

Or, if you’d rather have the short version, it’s this:

There are people who can cook, and people who can assemble things from packets of pre-mixed ingredients. People who can cook can choose what goes into their bodies. People who assemble are prisoners of someone else’s decisions. I am a master chef (but without Michelin stars — those go to the scary smart folks!), and godsdammit, I am not here to teach people who might crack an egg and mix it with stuff from a box and think that’s cooking to mix up things from two boxes and a can and think it’s cooking. Cooking from scratch, people. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be yours.

Edited to add:

Just saw this via Twitter. My students don’t like to write on the internet. They don’t want others to see their work, because they are scared. Knowledge really is power. They know they don’t have it. But they should. I’m damned well going to try to help them get it. At least a little bit.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 October, 2012 2:12 am

    Agree. Thoughtful post. Thank-you. What a challenge to teach nowadays when learning, schooling, education are confused with ‘looking stuff up’. If that’s the case, close the schools? I read this post and wonder what would I do today (am retired teacher). Take care.

  2. 12 October, 2012 4:58 am

    Fantastic. I love the cooking analogy, but it has to be remembered that many of our students have never [eaten anything that wasn’t in a can or box] and/or [thought anything that wasn’t spoonfed to them by a parent, religious leader, or teacher]

  3. Susan permalink
    12 October, 2012 5:19 am

    That’s a really interesting train of thought to follow…. thanks!

  4. 12 October, 2012 2:19 pm

    Yay! I don’t mind if they don’t take notes – but I do insist that they are paying close attention, because in class, if they ask me to repeat something? I can’t do it verbatim. There’s no way to hit instant replay – I am busily making connections and helping them make the connections – if they take time to write it down they’re going to miss something, some connection.

    And you’re better than I am with phone numbers – I know… three by heart. My own, a phone that my best friend no longer answers, and her office number. Oh. And the vet. C’est toute.

    • 12 October, 2012 2:48 pm

      I have to say that one of the best note-taking skills I ever developed was knowing what to write down! My notes full of things like, “connects X to Y”

      • 12 October, 2012 2:55 pm

        Again yay! I find my notes are full of linking arrows and little diagrams as well as words.

  5. 12 October, 2012 2:39 pm

    Without a knowledge base how do you make connections? Without connections how do you solve problems? Looking things up isn’t even helpful unless you know what to look up.

    • 12 October, 2012 2:48 pm

      Exactly. Nice to see you, by the way. I keep forgetting to check DW.

      • 12 October, 2012 2:53 pm

        To be honest I’ve not been terribly active on Dreamwidth. Between the new job, surgery and opera commitments I’ve been stupid busy.

  6. highlyeccentric permalink
    12 October, 2012 9:54 pm


    I had actually never seen it that way before – even though I do use lectures and lecture notes simply as a way of nailing ideas/keywords into my head (I rarely if ever looked back at notes I had made, for instance). Your perspective here would be why I – and many students with me – was completely perplexed by the prof I tutored for who would only release recordings of his lectures for the single week after the lecture. I could obviously see why he thought students would neglect to attend or listen at all, and try to cram all thirteen hours in before the exam. My response to that is “well yes dears, sink or swim”. But I couldn’t see why he also thought we’d be doing the *responsible* student (and the student with disabilities, and so on) a disservice by making the content available all semester.

    Of course. Learning to remember things. It’s kinda important.

    • 15 October, 2012 7:14 am

      Interesting point. I actually asked a lecturer earlier this year to post powerpoint slides online on the morning of the lecture so students could print them out and use them as a basis for their notes (i.e. by writing on the print out). This was partly because some lecturers in the particular unit tended to use so many slides that were all so heavy with text that no reasonable student could get down all the information in the available time, and the students all felt so rushed they wouldn’t have had time to form any impression about which details were most important/pertinent before the slide was changed. That might be a special case. But perhaps on reflection, or at least, in a general way, it would be better the other way around, with slides posted in the following week, provided this was coupled with a pep talk from the tutor about using the slides to check your notes are complete, representative, and logical, after having first made the effort to process the thoughts for yourself, as opposed to using them as a basic ‘effort reduction mechanism’. I mean, we all love a good effort reduction mechanism, but it does rather defeat the purpose, what?

      • highlyeccentric permalink
        19 October, 2012 3:41 am

        Observational anecdata suggests people are more likely to write on a slide they were given in the class than on blank paper – and personally, I’m far more likely to use the slides at all if they’re given before the class. If I take notes I *never look back at them* (or rather, not until i’m frantically prepping a tutorial six years later and remember that one thing someone said once…).

  7. J Liedl permalink
    13 October, 2012 1:24 am

    I circulate discussion questions in advance for all of my classes. it’s hardly a comprehensive list, but I make it clear that I expect them to be able to give some answer to these questions from the get-go. I give the freshman class five minutes to review their notes or make some notes before we dive into discussion – that’s as much as I’ll give a nod to needing to swot up.

    You’re right that if they believe they can/should outsource all of the knowledge they need for the course to Google, they’re not learning what they need to a historian. They’re going to have to assemble some cultural literacy in order to analyze the past – they need to know something of the Bible and of agricultural practices and all sorts of other bits and pieces as well as retain something of what they’ve just read for class.

  8. 13 October, 2012 3:54 pm

    Well, I hadn’t thought about this either. Partly I haven’t had the problems that you and others are reporting—at least, not to this extent (we have a lot of returning students at LRU, so they are more old-school to start with). But this does explain why a lot of them want to make sure that everything possible is posted to Blackboard. I’m happy to do that with handouts, but not with lecture notes, mainly because I have maybe 5 lines of lecture notes for a class. It is very useful to have this notion articulated, so that I think about it and can make some ideas about teaching more explicit both in class and in reports.

  9. Veronica permalink
    13 October, 2012 8:12 pm

    I thought this was a very thoughtful and intriguing post, and I am totally on board with the idea that you need to have some knowledge in your head (not just available to you via at the click of a mouse) if you want to understand the world at all.

    That said, I’m not sure I agree with the idea that students aren’t taking notes because they are used to a world where everything can and will be repeated. I started teaching about twenty years ago (well before widespread use of the internet) and I always had lots of students who weren’t taking notes then, either.

    • 14 October, 2012 6:19 pm

      I agree that there have always been students who didn’t take and don’t take notes. I think the difference is that students of my era made more conscious decisions not to take notes, in that they’d been told it was normative and desired behavior. In high school, for example, we were expected to take notes of some sort in all of our classes. Most of my current students are used to being told *when* they should write things down, so when they don’t, it’s less about deciding not to take notes, and more about note-taking not really crossing their minds.

  10. 13 October, 2012 11:05 pm

    Very interesting! I’m in the UK, and I do notice this phenomenon a bit… however, the thing I’m finding more scary is that some colleagues are claiming that good practice is to record your lectures and present them as podcasts, so students CAN repeatedly reaccess them. I’m not comfortable with that, as a general practice, although I have no problem with dyslexic students using their own recorders to record what I say in class or in office hours, which seems a bit contradictory. I’m not sure WHY I’m not comfortable with it, but it feels like a threshold too far… partly I guess because if we take away the last piece of pressure to listen, analyse and retain what’s important on their own in new topics or topics they don’t have a passion for (most of them can cite sport stats or celebrity trivia fluently without reference to the interwebs!), how will they EVER manage in a workplace, where the consequences of not being able to assimilate and recall information could be pretty serious – if it annoys an academic, who EXPECTS them to be learning, how will a boss feel about it? A client? I would feel pretty unimpressed.

    In fact, thinking about it, I chose which quote to take up for some work around my house recently partly because when I contacted one vendor a week after our meeting with some follow up questions they remembered some of the quirks of my house and project without needing me to explain it all again. That made me feel like I could trust them… hmm…

    • 14 October, 2012 6:13 pm

      Hmmm. Given that podcasts for students should ideally be no more than 8 minutes, I’m not sure your colleagues are thinking in terms of how students are used to accessing information. I love the idea of supplementary podcasts and mini-films, though. I’d like to do that for some of the cultural history I never seem to get to. Or the geography.

  11. 15 October, 2012 7:04 am

    Seems to be a policy at my home institution that lectures are always recorded in audio and video and posted within a couple of hours. This appears to be partly because the central system for enrolments allows students to chose conflicting units with lecture/lecture or lecture/tutorial clashes (the cynic in me says, because this means more students in units on average, which means more cash… but maybe I’m wrong. I sure hope so.) In some ways this is good for me as a tutor, because I have the mother of all commutes to get to campus, and it means I can hear the lectures relevant to my students without having to actually be there when I don’t otherwise have to be present for teaching purposes (like personally delivering the lecture, for instance!). It also means that in the event that I do ever have a chance to apply for a proper ‘grown up’ academic job, I can even provide selection committees with a link to recordings of me lecturing, with the slides and all. However, it definitely has drawbacks, like sending students the implicit message that attendance doesn’t matter, and – it now seems clear – that retention and digestion of the information isn’t important or urgent because the information remains accessible in the original form. The former problem doesn’t seem to loom large in the kinds of units I teach, perhaps in part because a charistmatic lecturer told them at the start of the year that turning up is not only more emotionally satisfying but also statistically associated with passing, and even with better grades. The latter, however, might indeed be an issue, and the brain habits thus encouraged might explain why (despite many, many repetitions in class) students this semester always seem to be emailing me to ask basic questions which they would know have already been answered if they had been paying attention.
    Attention, in fact, might be the key to this whole business, and at the root of many problems, of which a lack of note-taking is only one manifestation. In that light, you might find this link, which discusses boredom and attention (and their benefits and risks) in light of some recent thinking, interesting.
    Thanks for the thoughts!

  12. 2 September, 2013 5:35 am

    When I initially commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me
    when new comments are added- checkbox and
    now whenever a comment is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment.
    Perhaps there is a means you are able to remove me from that service?

    Thank you!

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