October 18, 2015

"Listening continuously and taking notes for an hour is an unusual cognitive experience for most young people."

"Professors should embrace — and even advertise — lecture courses as an exercise in mindfulness and attention building, a mental workout that counteracts the junk food of nonstop social media. More and more of my colleagues are banning the use of laptops in their classrooms. They say that despite initial grumbling, students usually praise the policy by the end of the semester. 'I think the students value a break from their multitasking lives,' Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and an award-winning teacher, told me. 'The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.' Holding their attention is not easy. I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty...."

From "Lecture Me. Really." — an essay in praise of the lecture method of teaching, by Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina.

63 comments:

Bob Ellison said...

Just unplug the Wi-Fi. Then people like me with agonizingly slow handwritinng and fast typing could take proper notes.

This is why I hated blue-book exams. My teachers were too often impressed by writing tonnage.

Ron said...

Maybe if more of my lecturers didn't read their notes like a bureaucrat I would've paid attention too! But more of my time was spent fighting gravity's effect on my eyelids.

Hagar said...

I am like Jerry Ford; I can listen or I can take notes, but not both at the same time.

Never have understood this American obsession with "taking notes."

Gahrie said...

Education is not supposed to be fun. (However it can be enjoyable) There is a reason it is called school "work" and not school "play".

Michael K said...

When I was in medical school, I took almost verbatim notes. A friend took his notes in Chinese characters because he said it was faster.

Now, my students often don't even go to class as the lecture is on line in Powerpoint. I was shocked to learn this.

sane_voter said...

I learn best by taking written notes summarizing the lecture, then typing those notes into a word document, and then reviewing said notes along with the primary textbook section. Having music or other distractions while being in the lecture makes it a waste of time. Of course, this is also dependent on the instructor having command of the subject and delivering a meaningful lecture.

chuck said...

I did most of my learning by reading. Given that graduate mathematics is one abstraction after another, what I really wanted of the teacher was context and the big picture, i.e., where did an abstraction originate and what class of problems was it useful for. That puts lots of responsibility on the professor to know more than a narrow specialty.

Gahrie said...

When I was in college, during lectures, I listened intently, took rough outline notes, and asked frequent questions. My professors loved me (some seeking me out to tell me so), but many of my fellow students objected. I heard the comment "I'm paying my tuition to hear him, not you" more than once.

AReasonableMan said...

This was an unusually thoughtful response to the trend to professionalize teaching with all kinds of do-dads and do-hickeys dreamed up by sociologists. A well thought out lecture is still the quickest way to inform students about what they need to know. Actually knowing it, for most students, then requires some work.

Dr.D said...

Wow!! How archaic! That sounds much like the way I used to teach way back when. How dare he say such things in this modern, with-it, age? Doesn't he know that electronics are here to stay, to eventually replace humans? What a fossil!

Mr Wibble said...

Never have understood this American obsession with "taking notes."

Most people don't take notes, they instead attempt to write down everything that the professor says/writes on the board.

Sebastian said...

Yes, lectures can convey a lot of information efficiently, IF they are well crafted and well delivered.

However, as technologies improve, the value-added of a live lecture over a recorded version will diminish, and the value-added of a mediocre live lecture by overworked adjunct at Podunk U over a fantastic recorded lecture by Dr. Superstar at Fancypants U will decline even more.

Original Mike said...

"The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention."

Welcome to adulthood, kiddies.

avwh said...

I found I learned by listening, then taking notes of a summary or synthesis of what I heard.

I cut two classes, I think, in my entire college career - and even though I read the textbook, I found the only stuff I missed on exams was what I tried to get from the textbook instead of from class lectures and/or discussions.

That "cured" me from cutting classes. But then, I'm a dinosaur too (this was in the '70s).

traditionalguy said...

Multi tasking students an listen and write at the same time. Teach for them.

A good history teller is a great blessing. I remember a Professor who had great insights into the Constitutional law transformations caused by the Civil War. The man knew what happened .

Starting with the History of Rome explains many of our approaches to law. Then the History of the Commn Law fills in more. Finally the. War Work by a Lawyer named Abraham Lincoln finishes a complete understanding of why our law became our law.

Original Mike said...

"I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes."

To deliver a good lecture, I needed to know my (detailed) notes cold. As much as possible, I kept my morning before lectures clear of other duties so I could review. That much time devoted to teaching rather than research was stressful, because my salary came from my grants not the state, but I always felt responsible to give a high-quality lecture. Whether or not they were entertained concerned me little.

The Godfather said...

I found as a student in both college and law school that note-taking was a part of a process of analyzing, condensing, and understanding the material. Particularly in law school, at first as I read the assigned cases or whatever, I tended to underline everything. That was useless. So I (tried to) limit myself to underlining key facts and key elements of the holding. Then, during the lecture class, I'd try to note down what the Prof said was important -- even if the Prof was wrong, this was a good clue as to what would be on the exam. Then, in studying for the final, I tried to refine my notes down to as much material as I thought I could master for purposes of the exam. I not only found this process very useful, I also adapted it for use in legal practice.

I don't know what students do nowadays with their laptops in front of them in class. If they are speed-typists and are taking down virtually ever word the Prof says, that's useless. At some point in the process you have to get your brain engaged, to decide what's important, and what's not.

whitney said...

I took copious notes in college, illegible to anyone but me, that I could recall in their entirety for test time. It some kind of mind/hand connection. I knew others that do that too. Very handy

Original Mike said...

"It some kind of mind/hand connection."

If I don't write it down, I don't remember it. I can throw the paper away after I've written it; it's the process of writing it down that's important.

virgil xenophon said...

My Father had learned Gregg shorthand as an undergrad in the 30s (used to send his intel messages as a company commander in WW II back to HQ by runner in shorthand in case the runner was KIA or captured as the Germans did not teach the Gregg method) and when in grad school in the 50s at Indiana Univ post-war, took all his notes in shorthand. His SOB major professor supervising his PhD dissertation insisted that everyone in lecture classes keep their notes in a special notebook and one day unexpectedly confiscated them to grade them (for what, accuracy, neatness, completeness? sheer madness..) At any rate dear professor couldn't read shorthand, and was he ever pissed. But since he hadn't specifically ruled shorthand out of bounds a priori...heh heh..

Crimso said...

"it's the process of writing it down that's important."

I think that has been supported by actual research on learning and memory. I warn my students that they NEED to write the material, that it actually is retained physically in your brain in a different way when you write it as opposed to simply watching. My own personal experience was that trying to memorize by simply reading and rereading did not work at all. But writing and rewriting my study notes (until I could reproduce them from memory, and we're talking an amazing amount of material for just one exam in Medical Biochemistry) made acing the exams at least possible.

Mark said...

Most people don't take notes, they instead attempt to write down everything that the professor says/writes on the board

That is understandable when the professor does not bother to explain what is important, when he instead likes to play "hide the ball" as to what the answers are or what the right answers are out of different possible answers.

After going through first university classes where you would spend a semester on a topic, and then bar review classes where you would spend three days on a topic, I have to say that the bar review method is much to be preferred. What would be best in the universities would be teach the entire course in an intensive first few classes, like bar review. Here's everything you need to know and this is what is most important. And then go back to the beginning for a more leisurely stroll through the material to gain a deeper and more reflective understanding.

Michael K said...

"I think that has been supported by actual research on learning and memory. "

Yes, this was my theory. I would write notes that were summaries of textbook chapters. Then I would write outlines of the chapters. The I would write outlines of the outlines. I never exercised after studying; always before. And I went right to sleep after studying late. I never took stimulants. I have a good memory anyway but we used to have memory contests. My National Board average over all subjects was 98.6.

I tried to teach students that method but everybody learns a different way. I wonder how my students who don't take notes or go to class will do someday when it is necessary to remember something.

ganderson said...

I still teach this way. I think it works. I think my students (mostly ) agree.

Original Mike said...

"writing and rewriting my study notes "

Yep. I've been observing my own learning process for over 50 years. It's what works (for me, at least).

Laslo Spatula said...

No One needs to study in college anymore.

Google, then Starbucks.

I am laslo.

Bob R said...

T.W. Korner wrote a very good paper on mathematics lectures. In brief, his take is that math can be done in real time in front of the student. So teaching someone math is like teaching someone to fix a dishwasher. You actually do it in front of them. Worthen makes a similar claim about the humanities - that you can actually demonstrate the construction of long complicated arguments. I guess that the best humanities lectures I've seen live up to this, but not many did.

Original Mike said...

"...requiring 60 minutes of focused attention."

A concession I wrangled out of the department was to convert my three 50-minute lectures per week to two 90-minute lectures. As I said upthread, I blow a morning preparing for a 10am lecture. I could not afford to lose three days per week; two I could manage. There were sporadic student complaints about not being able to concentrate that long, but like I said, "Welcome to adulthood".

Tyrone Slothrop said...

I never took notes in college unless the prof told us to write something down. You can give too much attention to scribbling when you should be understanding. It worked for me anyway. I got good grades.

Eleanor said...

While a lecture is the most efficient way to impart the most information in the least amount of time, it's also the least effective way for students to learn. When Confucius said, "I hear and I forget, I see, and I remember, I do, and I understand," he was right on the money. True learning only happens when students engage in the learning actively, which does not mean listening. The very best teachers find ways to include their students in the learning process becoming more of a "guide on the side" than the "sage on the stage". The introduction of technology into education makes the "sage" who only lectures superfluous. Why listen to a prof from Podunk U lecture on physics when students have access to Feynman? Unless the classroom requires students to actively engage in what goes on there, for most subjects, there's really very little added value in going to class. What was different 40 years ago wasn't that we had longer attention spans. Lecturing wasn't good teaching then, either. We just didn't any other choice but to sit through them.

Eleanor said...

A teacher who is convinced lecturing is an important part of his or her teaching methods should record each of the lectures and put them online where students have access. It will take some time, but then he or she can use them semester after semester. Assign the kids to listen to them on their own time. Then use the classroom time to really teach.

Gahrie said...

Assign the kids to listen to them on their own time.

It won't happen. I assign text readings nightly. Many of my students never bother even checking the textbook out from the library.

If it doesn't happen in the classroom, it doesn't happen.

David said...

"'The classroom is an unusual space for them to be in: Here’s a person talking about complicated ideas and challenging books and trying not to dumb them down, not playing for laughs, requiring 60 minutes of focused attention.' "

Thought. Difficult thought. A increasing rarity.

Original Mike said...

"Why listen to a prof from Podunk U lecture on physics when students have access to Feynman?"

I love Feynman, but he's dead.

Scott said...

The note taking skills I learned in college have formed the foundation of my career as an adult as a technical writer -- at least to some extent. If what I'm documenting relates to a business process or information flow, I ask the subject matter expert to draw it out on a white board. While they are doing that, I take notes about what I should be looking for when analyzing it. Then, at the end of the meeting, I will redraw their diagram in my notebook.

My current client has a prototype of a new product, a Microsoft Surface with touchscreen that's as big as a wall. When they finish drawing, they can easily send it to me as a PDF. Being sort of old-school, I find it more useful to print the diagram on an 11x17 printer so I can have it next to me on my desk and annotate it with red pen while I'm writing.

Although I'm a writer, I think visually. Whenever I take notes, I always try to add structure while I'm writing -- asterisks for major points, indents for subordinate points, arrows to different sections -- as I understand how things relate to each other. If I understand the structure, then telling the story about it is fairly easy.

Freeman Hunt said...

I didn't realize how much I loved lectures until about a decade or so ago when I was taking a class via textbook only. As long as there is a lot of information, lectures are great. (If there's not a lot of information but a lot a filler, lectures are dreadful.)

Michael K said...

"I assign text readings nightly. Many of my students never bother even checking the textbook out from the library. "

One of my important lessons in college was a quiz in English Literature I failed. I was an English major cause they would not give student sons to pre-med majors. I majored in English, having already beans Engineering major before.

The professor assigned readings, one of which was Wordsworth's Lucy Poems. In his quizzes, he asked us to explain certain phrases and section of the material we had read. I didntjl do al the reading. (No excuse) and the quiz consisted of explaining the following stanza and identifying the poem.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.


I flunked and learned a good lesson. He was one of my favorite college teachers.

He once booked himself on a tramp steamer with only Spencer's "The Fairie Queene" as reading material. He said it was the only way he could get through it.

A great teacher.

Michael K said...

Student loans ! Damn autocorrect.

MadisonMan said...

Student sons makes it sound like a great story though!

"it's the process of writing it down that's important."

I only teach online lately, and tell my students over and over to write down the material as they read it. I'm not sure many listen.

A fair few of my students don't do anything until just before the deadlines. They don't do well.

Scott said...

"If there's not a lot of information but a lot a filler, lectures are dreadful."

Like every macroecon lecture section I ever suffered through that was delivered by Walter Heller at the University of Minnesota. It was an endless series of anecdotes beginning, "When I was in the Kennedy administration..."

Birkel said...

Very good students learn differently than mediocre students. Many of you, above, sound like you are abnormal. You are at the end of the normal distribution curve on the side most would call the preferred tail.

What worked for you will not necessarily work for others.

Oso Negro said...

Jesus Christ, another whiny professor. I do industrial training and in a typical week I do as many hours of standup training than the average professor does in a semester-long class. Can't hold the students attention for an hour? Oh Dad, how sad! Try all fucking day.

Alex said...

No One needs to study in college anymore.

Google, then Starbucks.

I am laslo.



Google, Starbucks, than Anal.

Now you know.

Donna B. said...

Few things are better than a good lecture. Few things are worse than a bad one.

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rcommal said...

Having read this post carefully and also every comment attached therein carefully, all I can say is that I'm so glad that I have always been a careful reader. In fact, I am reader_iam, still.

regards,

lori

Coupe said...

Oso Negro said...I do industrial training...

Ah, but there is a difference. I taught a technical training course, but my lesson plan had one objective per module, and tasks needed to fulfill the objective.

Compare this to a lecture on why Marxism and Hegelianism both fail the proletariat.

Describe how you would defend this thesis and the critical thinking the students will need to use to challenge it.

At the end of the lecture half the students should be willing to protest your tenure on Fox News.

rcommal said...

I think that Eleanor is self-serving and that she wants not just education but also learning to be bent unto her own small version therein and thereof.

rcommal said...

^ Seriously, folks, and make no mistake about it.

rcommal said...

At the same time, I do think it precisely and profoundly useful, the lecture approach, among others.

; )

Bob R said...

A teacher who is convinced lecturing is an important part of his or her teaching methods should record each of the lectures and put them online where students have access. It will take some time, but then he or she can use them semester after semester. Assign the kids to listen to them on their own time.

You'd think that would work, wouldn't you? Problems is, people have been thinking that since the days of VHS. Turns out it doesn't actually work well. Lots of grant money has been spent studying this. Lots of bets have been made that this will revolutionize teaching. Students don't retain as much from the tapes. The "flipped" classroom works, but is highly teacher dependent. It doesn't scale.

My personal (nonscientific) take is that the most important parts of teaching are the traditional "active learning" tools: homework, quizzes, papers, tests. Give lots. Grade it fast. Give students immediate feedback. Nobody likes to hear this: nobody likes to grade.

virgil xenophon said...

@Bob R/

Re: Your "personal take." LOL, You would have seen strong opposition from the Dept of Govt (as it was known then) at my alma mater in the early sixties. They gave only two (2) written "blue-book" exams/semester, a midterm (and only because they were required to do so by the univ) which only counted 10% and a final which was 90% of one's grade, giving new meaning to the term "cramming for finals." LOL..

carrie said...

Blame Sesame Street for the short attention spans of kids today. It all started when they were little and set them up for a life of 250 character thoughts.

ganderson said...

Carrie- I've thought that for years. My own kids never watched it.

Char Char Binks said...

Teachers love to lecture because they get to to be the star of the show. Students love it if the show is entertaining, but studies have shown that lecturing is one of the least effective teaching methods. It goes back to the days when books were scarce, and continued for the reasons above. Google it.

Gabriel said...

@Eleanor:Why listen to a prof from Podunk U lecture on physics when students have access to Feynman?

For the same reason you don't need William Shakespeare to teach you how to read. Feynman's lectures were for an introductory level course--which he taught at a level much too high, and by the end of the semester his audience was all graduate students and other professors. Lecturers from Podunk U would have served the intended audience better.

The Feynman Lectures are an invaluable resource, for physicists, and are cherished by them, much as Feynman is. But having him teach freshmen and sophomores was not the best use of his time or of theirs.

Gabriel said...

I tried the educational fads too, and so did any number of my colleagues. The problems we had were these:

None of our students would read, and many of them could not read, their textbooks. They also would not do homework; if homework was not graded they didn't do it, and if it was graded they just Googled everything. The instructors tried the "flipped class" because it was the only time you knew for a fact that students were attempting the work. The students resented the "flipped class" because they thought the instructors were just trying to avoid lecturing.

The students were counting on the lecture to tell them what would be on the exam, not to learn any of the material.

I gave quizzes on the reading every week. Three simple questions, usually definitions of terms used in the chapter. The students invariably did none of the reading and the questions made it very obvious. For example, one question was "what does the chapter say is the definition of moment of inertia?" The most common response was "it's the time at which an object stops moving". And of course that is ludicrously wrong; what they were doing is guessing at the meaning from the words in the question. Because words in physics are used in highly non-standard ways it was very easy to come up with these kinds of questions. Pass rates on the reading quizzes were less than 1/3.

carrie said...

Ganderson--my kids didn't watch it either because I thought it promoted short attention spans.

FleetUSA said...

I learned late in my schooling while at NYU Law (Tax) the best method is to take good handwritten notes on assigned cases/material readings before class and then annotate those notes during the class discussion with the prof's highlights.

rcocean said...

I went to college in the 1980s and I hated most lectures. It was stupid of time - just the "perfessor" up there yakking away - saying stuff that was already in the textbook or that could have been reduced down to 3 page memorandum.

The only lectures that were any good were with Professors that had something to ADD to the text - and I'm not talking about their views on Reagan. I had an excellent English Lit professor who actually did just that and made medieval literature interesting.

Terry said...

I've always found taking class notes to be difficult. It is easier to deep read written commentary. I've come to appreciate physical books with big margins for note taking and comments.

Bob R said...

@Gabriel - I've gotten to the point of giving a short (5-10 min) quiz in almost every class, grade it fast, and get it back by the next class. I started doing this when it became clear that all of the best problems from the top math texts had solutions posted on line. I now collect very little homework - I simply give quizzes that are verbatim copies of the homework problems. I think it has helped a lot. Certainly increases attendance. And since I put definitions on the quizzes all the time, they usually know what a normal subgroup is when I'm lecturing on normal subgroups.

Bob R said...

@virgil - Completely different student population in the 60's. Very different administrative philosophy as well. If someone gave the traditional "look to your left, look to your right" speech at the beginning of a class these days, the person who would be gone at the end of the semester is the one at the front of the class.