Monday, September 20, 2010

A new reason for writing class notes by hand

The New York Times Magazine has an article about middle-school students using the Livescribe pen (used to be Pulse Pen) in class. Short version: it's helping them, for several reasons:
  • They can focus more on what the teacher's saying instead of trying to write down everything, since the pen captures the audio of the lecture. One student just writes down "LIST" if the teacher is rattling off a series of items; he then goes back to fill in the list.
  • They can review the material with the audio and fill in their notes later.

I suspect that part of the benefit here is that with this pen, students are actually going over their notes more than they used to. They're also able to relax and listen to the teacher, which may take away some anxiety.

Of course, one education expert is raining on this particular parade. Lisa Nielsen, who works for the school district, doubts whether this is useful; teachers should instead be pulling in YouTube videos and web sites from "content experts" because, after all, students who were given (and probably memorized) a teacher's PowerPoint slides did better on a test than those who listened in class. They don't need to "write down everything that the teacher says."

Well, who said they did? The point of the article is that students don't have to write down everything but that they tend to be more focused--in part because if they're talking instead of paying attention, the pen picks that up, too.

I wonder, though, how much information those students retained after a few weeks and whether those given PowerPoints were able to recall the information as well as the others. The article doesn't say, but it does predict that maybe having one good note-taker in a class would allow everyone else to stop taking notes.

I think this misses the point. For a lot of people (myself included), making those marks on a piece of paper while listening helps you to focus and remember the content better. The marks can be notes, or they can be doodles; it's the process of making the marks that helps. If you write notes instead of drawing a giant, tattoo-like picture in your notebook, the notes may help you later, but for concentrating at that moment, both kinds of making marks seem to accomplish the same thing.

At any rate, it'd be interesting to see if this worked in a college classroom. It would be right up there with the other invention I'd like to see: a giant tilted mirror at the back of the room like those in stage musicals, so that I could see who's taking notes and who's writing vital Facebook updates.


Historiann said...

Love it! Yes to all of your ideas. This is an excellent explanation for why note-taking is important.

I find that as you note, it doesn't matter if I ever look at the notes again. The mere fact of having taken them makes me remember information much more clearly and directly.

undine said...

That's it exactly, Historiann. I often don't look at the notes again, but writing them helped when I listened.