Take Note

I’m hardly the only one to have expended breath in unheeded arguments in favor of taking notes by hand, but it’s still nice to occasionally see something that better articulates and explains the rationale I try to share with students. I know some colleagues don’t allow laptops in class or for note-taking, but I do understand why some students find it appealing (convenience, searchability, saves paper, it’s faster and so possibly more efficient, arthritis problems that flare up gripping pens, etc), and I try to be flexible.

But I think part of what this argument highlights is the disparity between what many students think we want from them, and what we think we want from them. Laptops allow note-takers to more closely record a lecture or discussion verbatim; my students consistently ask me to repeat details that I think of as minutiae, albeit often interesting. They think I want them to memorize those details, rather than recognize the larger point I’m making with several specific examples. Thus for me, the gist of the article is here:

Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning.  Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.  By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.

Basically, typing allows for “through-put,” a mechanical transcription that requires less engagement–in the sense of critical listening, selectivity, and translation into a student’s own words/”language.” I’m still not sure how comfortable I am banning laptops or developing a stronger policy, and I do suspect doing so would be fighting against a larger current in which more information is consumed and produced and recorded in these formats and via these methods, as well as one that tells students they’re responsible for every word I utter (they aren’t, nor do I want to be).

I do wonder if there is some way to teach better note-taking methods on laptops. Something to ponder, but for myself, I’ll still mostly stick with my legal pads and scratch paper and non-linear messiness anyway.

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