The Importance of Taking Notes

Well, term has officially started and the campus of Maynooth University is looking very busy. Taking a short break from the task of preparing notes and problem sets for the modules  I’m teaching this term.  I’ve just remembered 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 that many students are simply not used to taking notes and find it difficult to do so effectively during lectures, so much so that the effort of copying things onto paper must surely prevent them absorbing the intellectual content of the lecture (assuming that there is any). Since it’s the first week of teaching here, I thought I’d share some thoughts, for the benefit of those starting a new term.

I dealt with the problem  of taking notes 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 many 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 (and which actually works very well in mathematically-based disciplines). That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation did. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Nowadays,  many lecturers  give copies of their powerpoint slides to students and others even 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. In other words, entirely passive learning is unlikely to be effective.

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 completely as possible. I don’t mean by copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but by 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 modules I’m doing this term I don’t intend to 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.

As a further study aid, most lectures at my previous institutions (Sussex University and Cardiff University) are recorded and made available to students to view shortly after the event. Contrary to popular myth there’s no evidence that availability of recorded lectures lowers the attendance at lectures. It appears that students use the recordings for revision and/or to clarify points raised in the notes they have taken, and if anything the recordings allow the students to get greater value from lectures rather than persuading them that there’s no need to attend them. Unfortunately we don’t have lecture capture at Maynooth, but I hope it can be introduced  here at some point.

I do 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 only  option and ensure that a range of teaching methods is available.

I don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures – I found problem-based learning far more effective – 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 in danger of becoming a dying art. If we’re going to carry on using lectures, we old fogeys need to stop assuming that students learnt it the way we did and start teaching it as a skill.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the way we* teach physics these days, however,  is not really about the mode of delivery but the compartmentalization that has crept in via the school system which encourages students to think of each `module’ as a bite-sized piece that can be retained until the examinations, regurgitated, and then forgotten. I’ve no doubt that a great many students pass the examinations we set by simply memorizing notes with little genuine understanding  needed or problem-solving ability demonstrated. We promote physics as a subject that nurtures these skills, but I don’t think many physics graduates – even those with good degrees – actually possess them at the end. We should be making much more of an effort in teaching students how to use their brains in other ways than as memory devices, and getting them engaged in more active teaching activities seems to me to be a very high priority. That said, I think we probably do much more of this in physics than in most other subjects!

*by `we’ I mean physicists generally, rather than my current Department (where we do actually make a lot of effort to develop these skills through small group sessions that complement other teaching activities.


4 Responses to “The Importance of Taking Notes”

  1. Indeed it has long been a contention of Carl Wieman and others, that traditional lecturing is definitely not an effective mode of learning and that some degree of active engagement is necessary if not the complete abandonment of the lecture format and replacing it with Teaching Studio sessions, with students working through problems, etc, backed up by guided reading, video materials, etc. Wieman’s main point is that this is in fact a finding from research and so there is almost an ethical imperative to implement such change.

  2. I must say that I have good memories (in both senses of “good”) of the lectures I heard. When and where I studied physics (Hamburg, later 1980s/early 1990s), a typical course consisted of a couple of lectures a week (a couple of hours each) and a problem-solving course. Basically, problems were given which were concerned with the lecture material, these were done as homework (in my case, almost always in the sauna or on the beach), then the solutions were discussed in the problem-solving course. The lectures concentrated more on the big picture and the problems on the nitty-gritty.

    Also, one had to pass the problem-solving course (certain fraction of homework problems and certain fraction of a test at the end of the course) in order to get a “pass” certificate. This was needed to register for an oral exam at the end of one’s studies, and the final mark was based only on the oral exam. (The overall final mark was based on four oral exams and a one-year master’s thesis, counted twice.)

    The advantage of an oral exam is that it is pretty easy to see what a student really knows. (There is the examiner (a professor) and some other person who writes a protocol; I often assumed the latter role after getting my degree.) My exam in theoretical physics was with Detlev Buchholz, who later moved to Göttingen and was awarded the Planck medal. I heard his lectures on thermodynamics and statistical physics (not his specialty) (other lectures on electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, etc I heard from others), which were excellent.

  3. Very interesting post. I definitely agree that taking rapid notes during a lecture and then transcribing them are extremely valuable. Transcribing really locks in the knowledge. If you find your own notes illegible for some point, that’s what office hours or study sessions are for.

    You did say, “I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instil proper understanding. ”

    Yes, but …

    A problem I had in my university days was that the professors and the graduate assistants were much quicker doing hard problems than I was. That’s obvious, but I experienced so much angst and spent so much effort and wasted so much brain time just trying to get past some minor roadblock (often a “trick”) for doing the “hard” problems. I do not think I would have lost the benefit or learning if someone had given me the hint to get started.

    What I am saying is that once in a while a lecture or problem session should be given as if one had been a student who struggled and then finally mastered the material, rather than by a brilliant person who found the material straightforward. The person who formerly struggled knows and remembers what it is like to not know something. I suppose one could say that if you struggle a lot you may have picked a bad field to go into. That’s fair, but I have done alright in spite of that — I still remember the key points from my physics and math courses, but I still recall the terrible struggles.

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