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.