Taking Notes…

As if this week wasn’t busy enough, I’ve just received back the student questionnaires for my second-year module The Physics of Fields and Flows (which includes some theoretical physics techniques, such as vector calculus and Fourier methods, together with applications to fluid flow, electromagnetism and a few other things). I’ve only just taken up this module this year and was planning to prepare it over the summer, but circumstances rather intervened and I’ve had to put together more-or-less on the fly. I was, therefore, not inconsiderably apprehensive about the reaction I’d get from the students.

Fortunately most of the comments were fairly positive, although there were some very useful constructive criticisms, which I’ll definitely take into account for the rest of the term.

However, one recurring comment was that I write too fast on the whiteboard. In fact I go far more slowly than the lecturers I had at University. That brings me back to an old post I did some time ago about  lecture notes.

I won’t repeat the entire content of my earlier discussion, but one of the main points I made in that 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 simply aren’t used to taking notes like this – I suppose because they get given so many powerpoint presentations or other kinds of handout –  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 lecturers 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. In fact for the module I’m doing now I don’t hand out lecture notes at all during the lectures, although I do post lecture summaries and answers to the exercises online after they’ve been done.

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.

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. Effective note-taking is definitely a transferable skill, but it’s also a dying art.

19 Responses to “Taking Notes…”

  1. When I was an undergrad (15 years ago), most lectures were of the “traditional” type. I found that being there and taking down notes was more than very helpful. Maybe this is just the way I absorb information, but even in cases where I was very tired or hungover (and therefore not doing anything else than mechanically transcribing what was on the blackboard onto my notebook), I could still remember the lecture better than when I was very alert in a lecture in which the lecturer gave handouts beforehand and I just took down a few extra notes. In the former case, I almost never had to look at my lecture notes when doing the examples sheets and the opposite was true for the latter.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I agree. It might be that the real value in making people take notes at lectures is to force them to be engaged in some way. If they have to do nothing at all then some of them will have their minds a million miles away, and find it harder to reconstruct the ideas expounded from the handouts afterwards than if they had listened to the lecturer, as more is always said than written.

      • telescoper Says:

        I’ll just comment that if students think I go too fast, I wonder what they would have made of Steve Gull’s part 1a Maths lectures, in which he used pre-written OHP slides, two projectors, and no handouts…

    • I agree with Martin – taking notes seems to put your mind into a more alert state, no matter if the notes as such turn out useful. Having learned to take notes in the blackboard-only-no-handouts-no-powerpoint era, I still find that skill extremely useful in a business setting – in any type of meeting or presentation. Oddly enough, I feel taking notes for a while allows for keeping even more unwritten content in the brain. So there might be something as ‘mental notes’, but it is a matter of training. People are often upset by the type of extensive minute meetings I am able to dump directly from brain to paper, several days after the meeting.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Well, I really like lectures as a method for university teaching. They present a formal overview of a subject, carefully thought-through and well-prepared (at least they are if the lecturer is any good). They can also be used to foster interest and enthusiasm among the students. I think lectures, if used properly, can be a very good mode of teaching.

    Of course, other teaching formats are useful as well, such as trying example problems. Problem-based learning is often essential, but needs to be backed up with the formal explanations provided in lectures.

    My opinion is that lectures should be for the routine transmission of information, as well as inspiring and doing other things. The problem I found is that often too few contact hours are scheduled to allow lecturers to use all productive teaching modes.

  3. Steve Jones Says:

    I would be very interested to know if students attempt to record or video lectures these days with their smartphone or some other device? So they can refer to it later or for revision. It is afterall so much easier to do these days.

    I imagine the sound would not be very good unless you were in the front row.

    But my second wondering is be how difficult would it be to have a camera and microphone permanently installed in lecture theatres, it could just be a static shot (not operated by anyone) and afterwards students could download an .avi file of the lecture.

    Perhaps that would mean that fewer people would actually go to the lecture. But then I wonder how bad that would be. I love Walter Lewin’s MIT physics lectures and Richard Muller’s from Berkley (all available on youtube) and watching those I never feel like I am missing out at all not being in the actual lecture theatre, and, even better I can pause, rewind etc.

    If a university put together some really good video lectures, then it wouldn’t really be necessary to repeat them each year, and would free up a huge amount to time staff, and let them concentrate on far more important (and in my opinion useful) problem classes, tutorials and labs.

    • Loretta Dunne Says:

      Our University does now routinely record lectures for students and attendance has dropped to 20-30%. Attendance at problems classes is non-existant unless some credit it attached to attending. Performance has also anecdotally dropped, but this needs a real study as its early days. If recorded lectures replaced real lectures, in our place what would likely happen is half the academic staff would be fired since they’d no longer be required for lecturing…

    • Steve Jones Says:

      Is that “dropped to” or “dropped by” 20-30%?

      To be expected I supposed. I would imagine the good news is that doing a decent comparison should not be too difficult – have recorded lectures for some modules and not others and compare.

    • telescoper Says:

      Some students record my lectures, with my permission, by putting recording devices on the bench at the front. I have to be careful not to hit them accidentally.

      We keep a register at lectures – this is partly because we have to keep track of which students are “engaged” with their course for accounting purposes. I’ve just reached the half-way point of this semester and attendance at my 9am Monday lecture has fallen from almost 100% to about 83%.

      • George Jones Says:

        I had a lecturer who violated a law of relativity; he transmitted information faster than the speed of light. Since the subject was non-relativistic quantum mechanics, this was okay.

        ” we have to keep track of which students are ‘engaged'”
        For what purpose? Is credit given for attendance, or penalty given for non-attendance?

      • telescoper Says:

        Universities have to report numbers of students back to the funding councils – in cases of non-attendance, fees may be docked.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        There is also a need to monitor the attendance of overseas students to comply with Home Office immigration requirements.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, in Cardiff this applies to students from England who may be deported back to Guildford if they fail to attend.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Coming from Ynys Môn (Anglesey), I suppose I was an overseas student.

  4. I first went to university in the 90s, I studied maths and lectures were all given using a blackboard and chalk where we copied down all that was on the blackboard which for all lectures was at a pace that I could follow with ease.

    I have now returned to uni to do a part time masters in Astrophysics. I was surprised to find that all lecture notes are now handed out.

    This term we have one lecturer who just reads out the lecture notes very slowly and goes through the maths (with added derivations) on the board. Unfortunately he speaks so quietly we can’t hear him. There has been some debate among a few of us as to whether to continue attending or not – the general consensus being that we might as well be there but seeing as we can’t hear him, just use the time to work through the lecture notes and additional exercises ourselves. Attendance is dropping fast in this course.

    The other lecturer is very fast, but he is interesting and doesn’t just talk through the slides, but adds anecdotes and extra information. These lectures are recorded (sound and video) by the lecturer which I find very useful because I can then sit down at the weekend and replay the parts of the lecture I didn’t understand straight away – often on the second or third run-through it all becomes clear – especially as he talks through the missing steps on the maths rather than writing them out. Attendance here seems to be staying fairly high, although we have our grumbles about speed.

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