What are these “note” things anyway?

I should start this by saying that I am all in favor of active learning. I think that lecturing at students is much less likely to result in learning than actively engaging them through discussion or tasks. However, as Robert Talbert says in his blog post “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” sometimes lecturing really is the best way to get the information across. No matter how dynamic and interesting a speaker you are, though, lecturing can cause problems.

I don’t mean problems with attention spans or distractions. Yes, students today have short attention spans, but no shorter than they were ten years ago, or fifty, or a thousand. And yes, students get distracted today, but they’ve always gotten distracted. It’s easier now with constant access to the internet, but it certainly happened before that.

The big problem I notice is with note-taking. Specifically, most students don’t know how to do it. So many times, I’ve seen students write in their notes exactly what the professor wrote on the board, but no more – none of the commentary that makes the subject understandable to them, personally. Or, even worse, I’ve seen students taking no notes at all, saying, “The professor will post the slides later, I don’t need to write anything down.” They’re missing most of the value that note-taking provides. It’s not just a way to remind yourself later what happened in class. It’s also an exercise that forces you to listen to a statement, try to understand it, decide what’s important, and write that down. Note-taking is a good tool to turn passive listening into understanding, memory, and learning. (See here for an interesting study on the value of taking notes with a pen vs. with a computer.)

I don’t remember ever being taught how to take notes, but I went through high school without a lot of the technology that’s ubiquitous today. PowerPoint was used, but not nearly to the same extent, and we were rarely given the slides afterwards. We owned laptops, but almost never brought them to class unless they were specifically needed that day. Note-taking wasn’t optional, and everyone seemed to pick it up themselves and develop their own style. Since that doesn’t seem to happen anymore, maybe note-taking is a skill that should be taught in freshman workshops. If lectures are sometimes inevitable, we need to make sure our students get something out of it, and part of that is knowing how to take good notes.

Grading isn’t great, but is it sometimes necessary?

I am all for de-emphasizing grades in school, from kindergarten to college. I think that the focus on outcomes to the exclusion of all else (including actual learning) has caused a mess in our grade schools and high schools. I, like many others, am tired of hearing, “Will this be on the test?” and I applaud the efforts of teachers who have eliminated most grading altogether, as mentioned in “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn.

That being said, I don’t know how to make it work in my field. It seemed that the examples in the Kohn article were mostly from humanities fields, talking about giving feedback on subjective assignments like essays. There is no right or wrong answer on things like that. You can make grammatical mistakes, but that may be less important than the content of the essay as a whole. How could this be applied to science- or math-based disciplines, where the material is often more objective?

I currently TA a class that is very math-intensive (specifically linear algebra). On a particular quiz, students may be demonstrating their ability to apply a specific algorithm they learned that week. If they apply the algorithm wrong – that is, if they follow the wrong steps or do them in the wrong order – what kind of feedback could I give beyond showing them how to do it correctly? That’s not particularly substantive – they’ve seen those demonstrations in class, their notes, and their textbook. Would that be enough to impress upon them the importance and urgency of learning the algorithm correctly? As is the case with many classes, the topic of the next quiz, a week later, builds upon the algorithm being tested.

I think that sometimes an assessment that has a real impact, like a grade, may be necessary to motivate students to learn foundational topics. I would hate to see a student struggle later in the class because they didn’t understand the early material and “didn’t think it was that important.” Any thoughts?

Should we really be mindful all the time?

I have mixed feelings about the chapters we read from Ellen Langer’s “The Power of Mindful Learning.” I agree that we should never become complacent in our teaching. As soon as we automatically slip into “lecture mode” and stop noticing that our students are asleep, we’re no longer really teaching anything. To paraphrase Ken Robinson, if no one is learning, then you’re not teaching. I also agree that presenting one method of doing something, like serving a tennis ball, as “the one true way” is detrimental to students’ learning. I learned to add by adding the ones place, then the tens, then the hundreds, and so on. Some children learn to add a little differently, but in the end we always get the same answer.

However, I disagree that being mindful of absolutely everything we’ve learned is always beneficial. I think it’s good that we automatically drive on the left side of the road in this country. Yes, it causes problems when driving in other countries, but when in America, we just don’t have to think about it. That frees up brainpower to do other important things, like watch for pedestrians.

Sometimes putting some tasks on autopilot lets you accomplish amazing things. For instance, I have been belly dancing for about four years now. By this point, certain moves, like shimmies, are ingrained in my muscle memory. That means that I can perform a lot of other moves while shimmying because I don’t have to consciously think about the shimmy anymore. Similarly, isn’t it possible that in math for instance, someone would be able to solve really complicated problems because they don’t have to waste brainpower thinking about how to differentiate? Maybe there are some things that should be mindless.