March 31, 2014

Should students switch from laptops to handwritten notes to enhance their understanding and memory?

A study suggests that the answer is yes.

The problem with laptops seems to be they facilitated verbatim note-taking, so the mind is less engaged in processing what is heard and extracting material, which is what you have to do in handwriting.

In real life, as opposed to in studies, a student — at least a law student — would need to edit these typed notes down into an outline that can be studied. Even handwritten notes — which is what I had when I went to law school — must be rewritten into something much more compressed. In the study, the subjects were tested on their understanding right after they took notes. They didn't have an outlining and study period. Another difference from real life is that the subjects don't seem to have done readings before the lecture. A real student — again, I'm assuming a law student — should have carefully read the material and taken notes before class. Class notes should be adding to pre-class notes.

When I was a law student, I took class notes that were basically annotating my pre-class notes, confirming understanding developed prior to class. Then after class, I would rewrite everything as clearly and concisely as I could, producing an outline that could be studied. Handwriting may have helped, because in annotating and rewriting things, your mind is strongly engaged in an effort to boil it down. We had no computers in those days, and computers make writing and rewriting much easier, but perhaps there's too much mental ease, too much open-endedness... I say as I blog... typing out the words....

Maybe I need to start a handwritten blog... or have a handwritten blog-post of the day/week on this blog. Years ago, I had a series of posts that reproduced marginal doodles from old notes, but they were more about the drawings than the text. I've put up photos of handwritten text for one reason or another now and then. But it always seems to be about some casual charm or mystery, not for special powers of thought realized through handwriting. It's more of an art project than a writing project, and that seems to be the case when it comes to other blogs that feature handwriting.

Obviously, on the web, if you really care about the words that are written, you want the words to be searchable text, so to write a handwritten blog — unless you rewrite everything in digital text — is to choose obscurity. It's twee and introverted. Marginalia.

42 comments:

rhhardin said...

I read almost all of Derrida in the early 80s, copying out every word into a notebook.

The purpose was chiefly to slow down the reading speed to what Derrida needs, give time to think and connect.

Notes in a lecture don't work that way, being more of a panic transcription than a reflection.

Lectures in podcasts I play at night, should I happen to be awake. It's better than lying there awake, and may put you back to sleep.

Eventually they sink in.

Glenn Howes said...

Wow, notes and pre-class notes. When I was in college I rarely took notes and never relied upon them. I did this thing called listening.

And I got decent grades, at least as an undergrad. A couple years into grad school I was pretty much done with my capacity to learn from a lecture course.

Oso Negro said...

Goodness, rh, how long did it take you to recover from that?

Hagar said...

I have never understood this American thing about note taking.
I am like Jerry Ford; I can listen or I can take notes, but not both at the same time.

Pre-class notes is a whole new thing for me. Never heard of that before. Seems like it would be easier to just recall the printed pages wanted and re-read them in your mind if you thought you had missed something.

gerry said...

RWRR - "Read - Write - Recite - Repeat" is what I was taught in high school, and I didn't use that until my second pass at college (a B.S. in Nursing). The first year I took courses I needed to get into the nursing college that I didn't have as part of a B.A.: Human Anatomy and Physiology, Microbiology, Nutrition, General Chemistry. All but Nutrition were two-semester courses. I maintained a 4.0 GPA. RWRR.

What I want to know is, with grammar schools no longer teaching cursive writing, how can students write anything?

Ignorance is Bliss said...

Glenn Howes said...

When I was in college I rarely took notes and never relied upon them. I did this thing called listening.

Me too. Of course I largely stuck to math/science courses, where if you understood a few high-level concepts and could reason logically from them, you could get to most of the right answers.

It would never work (for me) for law school, with so many cases to memorize, and often equally sound ( or even more sound ) reasoning on the losing side of the opinions.

FleetUSA said...

Professor, I did exactly the same as you did [NYU Tax 1970]. I am sure it was the difference between A's and a gentleman's C.

Looking back though I think the major difference was reading all the material and making handwritten notes BEFORE the relevant class.

Bob Ellison said...

The question they should be addressing is whether any note-taking makes sense in the modern age. Note-taking and listening to lectures are slow, inefficient, and dead.

Ann Althouse said...

"Wow, notes and pre-class notes. When I was in college I rarely took notes and never relied upon them. I did this thing called listening."

Were you graded on a curve where the professor was required to distribute the grades and there had to be a minimum number of C's, an average of only B, and a limited number of A's in a class where only those with credentials at your level were admitted and those students all understood they were in competition on that curve and where prospective employers took your rank in class very seriously?

MaxedOutMama said...

I think so - but habits are habits, and they're hard to break.

I find trying to type notes very distracting from absorbing the material itself. When I took notes in class it would be a phrase or so at a time, and then afterwords I would flesh that out from my memory. Most of my attention would always be fixed on trying to absorb the lecture or presentation.

Perhaps the dual pass is the real magic. I do find typing disengages from the absorption process in a way that jotting down a few words doesn't.

But hey, kids nowadays can just tape the whole thing. Perhaps they have learned to be somewhat inattentive because of that? The theory that they can always go back and rewind? Hell, I date back to slide rules - I am sure that changes in the internet and electronics have affected learning styles.

Ann Althouse said...

Before I got to high school, I casually believed that if you were good, you'd be good enough to do well by reading and listening and knowing what you should based on that. Studying was akin to cheating. Let's see how you do plain, like an athlete refraining from doping.

Then I got into trying to win. After all, they were keeping score. It's kind of dull to play and not try to win. I prefer following my own interests and not taking tests, of course, but if you are in school and within a graded system….

MadisonMan said...

I require my students to write down what they think is important in each book chapter they read. This is done before class, and it's a way to get the students familiar with the material before you go over it.

Writing things down is a great way to remember things. I hadn't thought about the difference between writing things down vs. typing them into a computer.

Glenn Howes said...

Well class rank was something that was never emphasized in Chemistry grad school (I have a Ph.D. from U.W. Madison), and I did well in other academic parts of the program such as the prelim and research proposal. My actual research was nothing spectacular, thus my no longer being a chemist. So I'd say any competition was in quality of research, not in graded lecture classes which we were required to take and pass, but wasn't of much interest.

I'd say my approach worked well enough, but like I said I was pretty burnt out of lecture classes towards the end, as my grade in Quantum Chemistry can attest. But I don't think that had anything to do with notes.

rhhardin said...

Goodness, rh, how long did it take you to recover from that?

Derrida was probably the author I got the most out of.

He's a virtuoso reader.

Ex-prosecutor said...

Today's law students are wimps. When I graduated in 1968, the law school provided a typing room equipped with Underwoods. It's tiring to type on them.

Every afternoon, I'd read my handwritten notes for the day, clarify as needed. Each weekend, I'd type an outline of the week's lectures, using a red pen and a yellow highlighter to mark what was important. At the end of a chapter or section, I'd again go through my class notes. So, by exam time, I'd have read my notes immediately, and again, in about two weeks, plus for exams.

So, I'd use short and long term memory. It worked well for me.

n.n said...

Notes should be taken sparingly. The class time is the best time for processing and scrutinizing data (e.g. lecture). Note-taking is a robotic effort, which may overwhelm conscious efforts to convert data to knowledge, when it is most accessible.

Hagar said...

I took a 400 level Bus. Adm. class with old Doc Parrish that I took very seriously to the point of neglecting my engineering classes' homework, so I was disappointed when I only got a B and was kvetching about it, until another guy said, "Look, there were no A's and only two B's, and you got one of them and you don't even belong here!"

I think some professors graded on curves, even back then, but I never bothered to figure out how this worked. Anyway, the GI Bill back then was only sufficient to pay for tuition and books, and we had to work part-time at minimum wage enough hours to pay for food, clothes, and rent, so we had to set priorities on how much time to spend on what courses outside of class. Never heard of anyone being concerned about being in the "top of the class" on an individual basis, though there must have been some ranking system, since only the top 10% were asked to join one of the honorary fraternities, if I remember correctly.

Rae said...

Professor, what are your thoughts on students recording your lectures?

Hagar said...

I should add that I had an advantage in that I learned how to study in Norwegian high school.
We were required to turn in math and physics homework every week, come rain or shine, and a Norwegian composition every two weeks. The teachers would generally spend the first 10 minutes of the class periods calling on random pupils to recite from the assigned homework for the day to check that it had been studied, and then went on to a general discussion on the subject matter and covering things not in the text books.
(The textbooks were mostly in a somewhat sparse outline format, and high school teachers were required to have a major degree in their major subject of teaching and a minor in education. To become a lector required a Master's in the major subject of teaching.)
At exam time, we were responsible for the whole course, including the matter only covered in class.
At the end of high school we took examen artium which consisted of 5 hour exams in the "written" courses (math, physics, 2 versions of Norwegian, and English), writtten in pen and ink on foolscap, and neatness counted.
For the "verbal" courses there were oral exams, and we found out which students would be examined in what courses on the morning of the exam by bulletin board posts in the hallway at 8 AM.
We were then responsible for every course taught over the 5 years of high school, including those that had only been taught in 8th and 9th grade.

And since we had other things to do too, such as skiing and swimming and soccer, not to mention meeting persons of the opposite sex, etc., we learned to study.

Richard Dolan said...

One size doesn't fit all, in this or anything else.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I've found that if I type notes, the information flies out of my head as soon as I've finished it. (Useful for certain copy writing projects where I don't need the info (say, notes for a business letter) clunking up my head for all eternity.

If I handwrite, the info sticks. Then I can blog about the topic, talk about it, write articles about it, and only need to refer to my notes for specific info (Was it 375 million or 374 million? Better check...)

Writing is marvelous, because it puts the information into your eyes, ears, and muscles all at once. If you're distractable (as I am), it also keeps you engaged and focused.

The big problem with writing? It's easy to lose. So retyping is a must if you need to refer back to the info over the course of several weeks.

Michael K said...

"And I got decent grades, at least as an undergrad. A couple years into grad school I was pretty much done with my capacity to learn from a lecture course. "

As a medical student, I took exhaustive lecture notes and, when I would read a textbook, I would outline the material in my own handwriting. Then, when it was time to study for an exam, I would outline everything and then outline my outline. I was convinced that writing something down was part of remembering, much more than reading or underlining,as so many do.

I was first in my class all four years and, should the question of the USC level of education be an issue, I scored at about 98% on the national boards afterward.

I'm not bragging (just a little) but am very sure that that method of study was better than most and probably fit my own mind.

I am appalled that medical students don't go to class now. The professors put lecture notes and powerpoint slides on an internal network and students download them.

Before medical school, I was an engineer and engineering is quite different to learn. You work problems after problems to embed the knowledge. I suspect law school is more like medical school in the learning mechanics.

Rob said...

Pre-class notes? I went through four years of college at Princeton and three years of law school at Yale, and honest to God, this is the first time I even imagined there was such a thing as pre-class notes. Live and learn, I guess.

One of the reasons handwritten notes might be more memorable is that, at least for me, the layout of the notes on the page--scrawled, with arrows, etc.--is more varied than even the same content would be if typed in a word processor.

Michael K said...

"Writing is marvelous, because it puts the information into your eyes, ears, and muscles all at once. If you're distractable (as I am), it also keeps you engaged and focused."

I absolutely agree. It is more work so that probably accounts for the fact that so many take the easy course.

Hagar said...

Richard Dolan said...
One size doesn't fit all, in this or anything else.

Right. So you set performance goals and leave it to the students to figure out the best way for them to achieve them. What works for you will not necessarily work for many, if any!, others.

Rockport Conservative said...

I taught illiterate adults to read in a volunteer program. I told them the same thing I told my children, if you write it down you are writing it to your brain. I didn't learn that from anyone but myself, just remembered what I had done as in my early years in school. I don't know how well it checks out with the educators of the world, but I know it worked for me and mine.

Ann Althouse said...

"Professor, what are your thoughts on students recording your lectures?"

Anyone who feels the need to do this has a problem with not understanding what is being said in real time, which shows them in over their head in a way they are unlikely to have enough time to recover from. What are they going to do, relisten to the whole class and THEN try to make notes? It would make more sense to prepare effectively so that the class is comprehensible enough to be able to make real-time notes. Spend more time preparing, as much as is needed, until you can bring the capacity to hear and understand to the classroom. Don't tell me you can't do that unless you are spending at least 3 hours of study for each hour of class, and even if you are, you should go ahead and do even more, because there is no substitute for being able to read and understand. Having a recording… how does that solve your problem?

Ann Althouse said...

"Pre-class notes? I went through four years of college at Princeton and three years of law school at Yale, and honest to God, this is the first time I even imagined there was such a thing as pre-class notes. Live and learn, I guess."

Well, I made up the term. It means notes that you take when you are reading the materials assigned for that day of classes. Did you not take notes on your reading?

Law students are taught to "brief" each case, which means that they have analyzed and written down the facts, the doctrine, and the reasoning of each case they read.

It's basic preparation in law school.

I guess some students just highlight the text and write in the margin, and for them that would be the reading notes, pre-class.

Did you just read the book and not mark anything, not write anything?

Did you need to be prepared to participate in the discussion?

Ann Althouse said...

I guess at Yale, with no serious grading and high prestige for just graduating, you can coast, right?

virgil xenophon said...

When an undergrad at LSU (62-66) the Poli-Sci Dept only gave mid-terms because they had to, so the finals on the entire semester (all essay) were 90% of one's grade. This put a premium on note-taking unless one took speed and re-read the entire semesters assigned readings in one speed-freak orgy just prior to finals. I used high-lighters on the text-books and outline-form notes from the required readings in the library. In class I mostly just listened during lectures (as Ann should know, there is A REASON juries are usually not allowed to take notes--on the theory note-taking is too distracting from absorbing key testimony) only making abbrev. key heading
points to refresh my memory about the points emphasized during lecture. Worked for me, YMMV..

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

In order to learn anything that is word-based I have to be able to absorb, manipulate and repackage it. Sometimes this is repeating it back, in my words, to someone; sometimes it's explaining it to another person; sometimes (often) it's distilling what I'm hearing into summarized written form. That's at least as important to the learning process as reviewing the notes later. I guess that laptops are OK, but paper and pencil allows me to nimbly use graphical tools like letter/word size, sketches, arrows, circles, bubbles, pyramids, asterisks etc to demonstrate relationships between ideas. Hard to do with a keyboard.

Re pre-class notes: I've never really lost the habit of keeping a notebook next to something I'm reading and learning from even though my days of reading for a class are far behind me. Jotting down insightful points or things to remember/look up later or ask about makes the experience much richer.

richardsson said...

In my career as a community college instructor, the most amazing thing I watched when I was lecturing was a young woman translating my lecture on the fly and taking notes in Mandarin. Later, she told me she had graduated college in China but she needed my course for a California teaching credential. She was no ordinary community college student.

Shawn Levasseur said...

Pre-class, post-class, notes, reading, whatever.

It's the act of engaging with the material, and your thoughts on it, multiple times that's the key.

Similarly, some say that writing really begins once you start editing your first draft.

Rob said...

Did you just read the book and not mark anything, not write anything? Did you need to be prepared to participate in the discussion? I guess at Yale, with no serious grading and high prestige for just graduating, you can coast, right?

I'd read the book, underline some passages, put asterisks next to some, maybe add some marginalia. I don't remember briefing many cases, but I was prepared to participate in discussion, though admittedly I wasn't one of the people in the first row waving their hands eagerly. And it's not as if the books weren't open and able to be consulted to refresh one's recollection.

I'm not faulting you for your very conscientious preparation; obviously it worked out great for you. But that kind of intensity would have been the object of wonder and, I'm bound to say, more than a little derision. Not even Hillary Clinton, with her coke-bottle glasses, was that organized and well-prepared.

Real American said...

A real student — again, I'm assuming a law student — should have carefully read the material and taken notes before class.

Ha ha. Probably not. Sometimes. First year mostly. After that, less likely. In reality, most students just take the notes, do some of the reading (skimming) and then right before finals comes, you get THE FEAR.

The Fear drives you catch up on all the reading and studying you missed so you could drink and hang out. You spend an intense amount of time catching up and outlining and comparing notes with other students with the Fear before cramming for the (likely, open book) final, during which you release all the information you just crammed into your brain hoping it comes back to you when you study for the bar, but not keeping your hopes up.

The main problems with laptops, of course, is the distractions - internet, chatting, playing games, and sometimes doing work from other courses. It makes it difficult when you get the Fear and you go back and read your old notes, which hopefully have the date and a few mentions, but mostly open white space that doesn't help you much.

Hagar said...

I hate people who mark up books and dogs who crap and pee in my yard.

Michael K said...

"I watched when I was lecturing was a young woman translating my lecture on the fly and taking notes in Mandarin. "

One of my classmates took his notes in characters as he said it was faster.

I don't understand people who think taking notes means you don't listen.

Craig Howard said...

Taking notes always detracted from my understanding of the lecture. I was not, however a law student. Perhaps, learning is done differently there,

virgil xenophon said...

My Father took his notes in grad school in Gregg shorthand, lol. Solved THAT problem!

Jamie McArdle said...

My community theater group did "Our Town" a few years ago; the man who played the Stage Manager, who has a bazillion lines, most of which don't relate to anything that just happened and without benefit of a detailed set to act as a visual cue, said he learned his lines by rewriting them... over and over and over.

I bought a Livescribe Sky pen a couple of years ago. It's a little bulky for long stints of writing, I think, at least if (like me) you don't write all the time (I have read reviews by people who do write all the time, and most of them have said its heft doesn't bother them). But it has the advantage that you do get the benefit of writing your own actual notes, but those notes are then saved and available in Evermore. Theoretically they're searchable, but I haven't had a ton of success with Evermore's OCR for handwriting...

Pamela K said...

I always worried that I "coasted" through school. It always seemed so easy. But from reading these comments I must have been a weird book-worm nerd. I ALWAYS read the chapter before the class. I ALWAYS took pre-class notes and notes during the lecture. Then before the test I would outline, define and pull out word associations and dates. I did this for every class I took. I thought it was "the way" school was "done". It never registered to me that other students were not also doing the same thing. I was computer-mom for my son's kindergarden class. I love computers, but if I need to "know" something cold- I need to read it, write it and hear it. - that's my two cents.

Leslie Fish said...

When I was in college, everybody brought small tape-casette recorders to class and took only brief notes -- quite often in Shorthand. Does anybody remember Shorthand these days? Now *there's* a skill worth preserving!

For those of you who had really bad English teachers, know that Cursive (specifically Palmer-Method Cursive) is *only one of several* forms script writing -- and very far from the best of them. Other forms -- like Italic and Copperplate -- are much more legible, easier to learn, quicker to teach, and keep their legibility long after the student has left school. Cursive, on the other hand, has a nasty tendency to degenerate into that illegible scribble for which doctors are notorious (but unfortunately not alone!), which has caused thousands of deaths from "medical error", as any nurse or pharmacist can tell you. So teach penmanship in the schools, by all means, but choose a better form than this! If only for all the lives it has cost us, Cursive deserves to die!