One Experience – Technology and Note-taking

I believe there is still merit in note taking at school. When students write notes, they have to echo a concept in their brains, and transcribe it into meaningful text. Then they are able to revisit the concept later to “rehearse” it. Rehearsal is an important component of memory. Studying depends on good note taking.

Note taking is particularly effective if it is done actively rather than passively. That is to say, if students hear or read a concept, and then translate it into their own words rather than simply copy text word for word, they learn and remember better.

In order to facilitate active note taking in my Psychology 12 class, I would typically reveal the notes a line at a time using Powerpoint. So I’d talk, ask questions, issue challenges, and then review the concept by revealing one line of text at a time.

What I found was that the students did not engage very well. As soon as the note taking started, they went into a passive mode. The “buzz” of learning in the room was gone, and they became task-oriented human photostat machines.

However, one day, my projector failed. I alone could see my Powerpoint slides, and I had to copy the notes onto a whiteboard in my own handwriting (for the love of God!).

Low and behold, I found that the buzz was back. It seemed that my gesticulating while I was writing, my penmanship and personality lit up the topic. Kids asked for clarification of concepts. I was hopping around, circling words, underlining some, pointing to this and that.  I was translating the language out loud –pausing here and there, disambiguating vocabulary. Previously, when I’d put up the pre-written notes on a screen, I would add emphasis as well, but it is impossible to engage in the same way with text on a screen. And it seemed that once that line of text was up, the students ignored me, and passively copied the text.

Thinking back on the discovery, there are a few dynamics worth considering. First of all, this discovery had more to do with my behaviour than the students’. I think I became more engaging as I switched from Power point to white board writing. And I think pacing was important. When the words hit the board one at a time at an organic pace (with me saying them and repeating as I write), there was less urgency to copy and get ready for the next note. The students could “dwell” in the concept for a few seconds. We were more together on our timing.

Second, a separate, but related issue: the students were writing notes, not keying them into keyboards. I wonder if the tactile act of scritching a pen or pencil on a leaf of paper connects learning more than keying words into a keyboard. Not to mention the problem of external distractions: instant messaging, social media alerts, gaming temptations…

Admittedly this is just one anecdote: one teacher with one subject taught in one class. But deny it gravitas at your peril. Although it’s just an anecdote is advised by all of the teaching I’ve ever done.

Certainly, recent research should cause us to question how we use technology in the classroom. I myself have not seen one example of how students have “learned better” with computers.  On the other hand, I have seen a lot of examples of how computers have become disruptive to learning.