Take a note from me…

Having just given a lecture on probability and statistics to our first-year postgraduate students I thought I’d indulge in a bit of reflective practice (as the jargon goes) and make a few quick comments on teaching to see if I can generate some reaction. Part of the reason for doing this is that while I was munching my coffee and drinking my toast this morning – I’m never very coordinated first thing – I noticed an interesting post by a student on a blog  that somehow wound up referring some traffic to one of my old posts about lecture notes.

I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made was about how inefficient many students are at taking notes during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture.

I dealt with this problem when I was an undergraduate by learning to write very quickly without looking at the paper as I did so. That way I didn’t waste time moving my head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard. Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly…

My experience nowadays is that students aren’t used to taking notes like this, so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer. That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  most lecturers use more “modern” methods than this. Many lecture using powerpoint, and often they give copies of the slides to students. Others give out complete sets of printed notes before, during, or after lectures. That’s all very well, I think, but what are the students supposed to be doing during the lecture if you do that? Listen, of course, but if there is to be a long-term benefit they should take notes too.

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as complete as possible. I don’t mean copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time.

I like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

Next year we’ll rolling out a new set of courses here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University. The express intent of this is to pare down the amount of material lectured to create more space for other types of activity, especially more exercise classes for problem-based learning. The only way to really learn physics is by doing it.

I’m not saying we should scrap lectures altogether. At the very least they have the advantage of giving the students a shared experience, which is good for networking and building a group identity. Some students probably get a lot out of lectures anyway, perhaps more than I did when I was their age. But different people benefit from different styles of teaching, so we need to move away from lecturing as the default option.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures, but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Note-taking is a transferable skill, but it’s also a dying art.


13 Responses to “Take a note from me…”

  1. AlexRogers Says:

    I think that in all the modules I have sat in the last four years, only once did I find that the sheer rate of equations being written overcame my ability to write and understand at the same time. Besides as the classes became smaller, lectures became more personal and I think I got a lot more out of them.

    I totally agree about lectures being more about inspirational speaking rather than reading pre prepaired lecture notes. From what I can remember of first and second year, the lectures that I performed best in were those in which lecturers were fantastic at inspiring in the lectures and giving lots of homework out to actually practise the principles discussed. The not so good results were in lectures in which powerpoint slides were read off at a monotonous tone. However this could also be due to the all encompasing nature of the first few years, and of me discovering that I really love astronomy, and that I have only a passing interest in other physics.

    Some lecturers use partial powerpoint presentations. Lecture slide handouts would often miss vital information, so it was important that students attend, but would also have more time to listen rather than write.

    • telescoper Says:

      There are exceptions to every rule, especially when it comes to teaching, but I have noticed during lecture observations that some students (a) write very slowly and (b) write down only what the lecturer writes. Of course whether what is said is worth writing down in the first place is another matter…

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris Evans, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Take a note from me…: http://wp.me/pko9D-2bP […]

  3. I agree with you Peter – but students seem to have to expect this. What I do is put notes on the web, but add a lot of board work not in the notes – which forces note taking.

  4. i agree – lecturing is a process which i assume evolved when their were too few text books… far better that a student reads the facts from a book and then spends their time practicing examples.

    indeed, i’ve often thought that we should just video our lectures (once) and put them on the web so students can watch (and rewatch) them as and when they need to. then they become just another learning resource.

    however, the problem with replacing lecture with example classes and the like is that these require significantly more staff effort to support, so such a change, while beneficial to the students, comes at a significant cost. what are the plans to deal with that?

    • telescoper Says:


      Yes, it does take more effort to support exercise classes but once the course materials are prepared, exercise classes can be supported by PhD students and PDRAs with academic staff attending where necessary. It also gives the more junior staff the chance to get some teaching experience.

      We’re not planning to abandon tutorials (which are usually in groups of 3-4 in Cardiff), but these (and project supervisions) are the least efficient teaching methods (in terms of full-time staff effort). I suspect lectures have proved durable primarily because they are cheap to do (per student).

      Anyway, if students are going to be paying three times the fee they currently are, they have a right to expect higher quality teaching provision.


    • Bryn Jones Says:

      This does look a bit like offloading teaching on to the shoulders of people who should be doing research (even if research councils do allow the practice).

    • telescoper Says:


      It’s not offloading. The full-time staff will still be doing the bulk of teaching, but with some help for the odd hour from other people. It is important for students and PDRAs to garner teaching experience, as they will be required to teach in most permanent jobs they will be seeking. It’s good for the department and good for them, as it helps them develop their careers.


    • Woken Postdoc Says:

      Whether officially or secretly, plenty of PDRAs already deliver lectures and supervise students. Some PDRAs (in some institutes) perform more of it than the tenured staff do. Some perform it opportunistically, or fill occasional gaps.

      It *is* a potentially risky diversion. I am wary that excessive *enjoyment* of lecturing leads to an endless madness of displacement-activity. Taken in moderation, it can be a valuable part of a postdoc’s vocation.

      Lecturing becomes better if you mix some relevant current research interests with the classic old topics. Don’t just repeat last year’s notes. Perhaps the infusion of fresh, live expertise is the reason why universities hire scientists to teach (rather than teachers)?

  5. I think I found the transition from being talked to, to being talked at the strangest thing about lectures.
    I recall my worst module was a maths module being taught on powerpoint. When we students asked for an example to be done on the board, other work was not covered, because there was not enough time. The balance between quality and quantity was reallly off on that course.

    I liked the look of the new module scheme, repetition put me off studying a topic and I found the progression in the fourth year in putting it all together and lecturers knowing that we know the theories (even if we need a slight reminding), made the course more interesting.

  6. telescoper Says:

    II see from my spam filter that attempts have been made to post abusive messages on this item. This message isn’t directed at any of the commenters above.

    This is taken from what it says on the front of my blog:

    Feel free to comment on any of the posts on this blog but comments may be moderated; anonymous comments and any considered by me to be abusive will not be accepted.

    So if you want to post a comment please refrain from offensive language and please identify yourself. Or push off.

    Sorry for the interruption. Please continue the discussion.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    Well, I disgree with most of the above: I think lectures are great. When I was an undergraduate, I occasionally got keen and looked at the recommended textbooks in advance, and generally got depressed that it all seemed so difficult. Then when the lectures came, everything turned out so much easier: this is because lectures tell you efficiently which parts of textbooks you don’t need to bother reading first time through (i.e. most parts). The only caveat is that lecturers shouldn’t be too entertaining – I can think of courses that I enjoyed immensely only to find that I had taken no useful notes. I think it’s hard to beat a nicely paced (i.e. chalk+talk – absolutely no powerpoint) lecture, where the student has time to translate what the lecturer is saying into their own words. Clearly, this is only a basis for building understanding by doing problems, preferably in a tutorial context, but I still think it’s the best basis that exists. It depresses me that our undergraduates demand printed notes in advance: however hard you try, these always expand into a mini-textbook and the virtue of the lecture as a clear executive summary of the logic of the subject risks being lost.

    • Monica grady Says:

      Peter- some of the things that you mention are exactly the way the Open university teaches. We no longer have kipper tie’d lecturers on the TV at ungodly hours. Before we put on a course, we write all the material as a text book, with problems included in the text. Students meet approx monthly for face to face tutorials with their tutor, who is part of a network of associate lecturers. On top of this are separate assignments and end of course exams. Many of our course texts are downloadable ( for free) via iTunes. Students have to make their own notes, and are encouraged to discuss (but not to copy!) course work on electronic fora (forums? never sure on this one). One day, all universities will be like the OU……..and our fees are nowhere near £9 k!

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