Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Notes on Notes

A regular correspondent writes:

I study math teaching at
the college level. I've lately been pondering this
thing that is the difference between what an
instructor says and what the instructor writes on the

Typically, on the board is a series of highly
organized, highly symbolic results. There's not a lot
of natural language. In English I'd imagine there's
an analogue.

Mostly, the logical connective tissue, the 'thought
process' is part of the instructor's talk, but not

We basically know that students only write down what's
on the board. We think that the stuff we say is
really important and is the 'way we think' that
students need to learn. We want students to get
better at writing this stuff down.

What do we do to help students to take better notes?
What did you do to help students take better notes?
What do you do as an administrator to encourage your
faculty to help students take better notes?

It's a great set of questions, especially from the perspective of someone like me, since I absolutely suck at taking notes. The 'notes' gene must be recessive.

One of my pet peeves is the abuse of PowerPoint. I'm willing to grant that PowerPoint (and similar programs) can be useful in certain contexts. It's great in classes with lots of charts and graphs (economics leaps to mind), or in classes that use maps (history), or in classes where visual representations are the core of the subject matter (art history). For art history, PowerPoint can offer a much more elegant alternative to the old slide carousel, and that's great.

But I'm also convinced that PowerPoint can exacerbate the problems students have with note-taking. It makes things look finished, which many students will take as implied permission to disengage; why take notes when you already have them? It also implicitly promotes a 'bullet point' style, which may be fine for certain subjects, but which can be death to nuance. (“Death to Nuance” would be a good name for a band.) Finally, there's a risk any time you turn off the lights. I dropped an art history course in college after one day when I fell asleep ten minutes into the first class; it was pretty clear that I just wasn't gonna make it. Some of us prefer 'live' to 'canned' presentations.

In the subject matter in which I got my degree, the connective tissue is almost entirely the point. There are a few basic facts that lend themselves to the bullet point presentation, but most of the action is in the interstices between bullet points. If students focus so much on the few canned facts that they miss what makes them important, the point of the class is lost. This happened more often than I care to admit.

But at least my subject usually employed English. In something like math, explanations are usually much more elegant when given in specialized language, but students' facility in that specialized language is frequently shaky. So even if the students copy everything faithfully, they may (and often will) miss the logic behind it.

(I won't make any grand claims about my own potential in math, but I will say that many of the math teachers I had didn't even try to get at the underlying logic; they just drilled techniques. While the memory was fresh, I could 'plug-and-chug' reasonably well, but throw in any kind of twist and I was hopelessly lost. Anecdotal evidence suggests I was not unique in this.)

What do I do as an administrator to help faculty help students take better notes? Nothing, really. I consider that the faculty's job to figure out. As an instructor, I wouldn't want that kind of administrative meddling in my pedagogy, so I try to live the golden rule on that one. Still, informal conversations (and blog entries) seem pretty non-invasive.

So, an open question to my wise and good-looking readers: what have you found effective in getting students to take notes that will actually make sense later?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I teach Cognitive Psychology. On the first day I do an exercise with my students where half take notes on what I'm saying, and the other half follow along with the syllabus. Then they get a surprise quiz. They do pretty poorly on the quiz (no higher than about 75%), with the note-takers doing better. Then I go through one study showing that taking notes when the professor has provided skeletal headings improves immediate unplanned recall (an unannounced test 2 days later) in comparison to having the full text or only taking your own notes, and that the full text catches up with a planned test 2 weeks later. We talked about the difference between the groups, especially how having the "full text" can make students think they have everything down.

I do this partly because it is how I teach the rest of the class, and I want them to be exposed to that on the first day - some kind of demo, data collection, predicting the results of an experiment, and then talking about those results - but I am also teaching them a bit about how to take notes from my lectures. I provide them with handouts at the beginning of each class with figures and skeletal headings, that they can fill in. They also get the powerpoints to fill in some details that they might have missed. But we also talk about how much of what is important is not written down in the handouts or the powerpoints, and that they should spend most of their energy in class translating what I'm saying into their own words, with the handouts to help organize their thoughts, and the powerpoints available as backup and additional memory cues.

It seems to work - performance on my exams has gone up, and the students uniformly love the handouts.

Another idea we've kicked around for our Intro class is to assign 4-5 notetakers per class, and then scan in their notes and make them available on Blackboard for the entire class. (Of course, students would be encouraged to still take their own notes as well.) Students can learn a lot about taking notes from examining other students' notes, but seem to hardly ever take advantage of that without a push.
The skeletal headings are essential.

I attempt to use the last four minutes or so to summarize the major points of the meeting. Failing that, I'll provide them at the start of the next meeting.

It helps to return to the Big Idea in play at the moment. (I've sometimes gone so far as to challenge an introductory class: the answers to the exam are Mutual Gain, Opportunity Cost, Reducing Transactions Cost. Your task is to identify which idea applies where, and why.)

Power Point? What's that?
I teach Business Math and draw numerous illustrations/use side examples as we go through each concept. Another helpful technique is ask for volunteers to work out a problem on the board.
In my literature survey class, I often make a few lists of things on the board before class, like "Five Important Reading Strategies" or something, but I don't like using the board during lecture or discussion. In fact, I like moving between lecture and discussion throughout the class, so I'm rarely just standing at the board.

What I've found helps is that I will be explaining something, realizing my students aren't really writing anything down, and then I'll start spelling something--someone's name, the title of a play--and immediately everyone's pens hit the page. Or, shamelessly, I'll interrupt myself and say, "Wait. What did I just say? Write it down:" and then I'll repeat the highlights.

Literature students tend to be terrible note-takers, so when we're talking about literary or historical context, I find it's necessary to give them out-loud bullet points, with numbers sometimes, to get them to write it down.
At both universities where I've worked, there has been a "first year experience" type of class required of incoming freshmen where note taking strategies are gone over (along with time management, study skills, etc).

Also, when I give quizzes (in my calculus classes), I let the students use their notes. This not only allows them to look up things in their notes that may not have had time to gel yet, but it also encourages them to take good notes (and is a further deterrence against skipping class).
I think powerpoint is getting a bad rap...

I use it for nearly ever course, and I use it to give the headings of what we'll be talking about. Often there are blanks and questions we'll need to cover.

I agree that, if the entire lecture were to be put in PowerPoint, the nuance would be lost as the format is terrible for nuance -- but that is the fault of those who abuse the format instead of use it for its intended purpose.

The nice thing about using powerpoint is that I can make it available for every course and I can make sure that I cover the essential points for the class meeting. Students can print them in their favorite format and use them to take notes, or to fill-in their notes later. I am kept on track when I have multiple sections of the same course. I can also make sure that the exams are fair and cover what was discussed in class....
Two quick additions:

1. In my First-Year Program course, we have a sophomore "mentor" who sits in on the course and works with students on their communication skills. We ask her to take notes in class one day and then we PDF them and put them up on screen so that students can see what good notes should look like.

2. On Powerpoint: it is VERY useful in economics, as I can animate graphs and make them move. The one semester I used it almost constantly in intermediate macro, I actually printed out the slides (3 per page/2 sided) and copied them, hole punched them and passed them out. Then I said "here are the slides. Now you do not have to write down anything on the smartboard and you can pay total attention to my explanations and our conversation, and take notes on THEM." That helped a lot.

Were I to do it again, I'd just make the PPTs available on ANGEL ahead of time and suggest they bring a printout or laptop to class.
In sci/engr, I've found that one good way to communicate data and data interpretation is to use an overhead (not powerpoint) with a graph and to distribute a copy as a handout. Then I'll project the image directly onto the chalkboard, rather than the screen, and will draw all over the figure with the chalk. The students get real data at the beginning, and then they can observe interpretations "in action" and mark up their own if they choose.

In cases that need animation or more active interpretation, I've found it more useful to project some other program (excel, sometimes, or Matlab) so the students can see how I'm using the program to obtain the kind of results that are necessary for problem solving.
From a student's perspective: I HATE PowerPoint. It has its advantages when looking at slides of photos and maps for history class, etc. But I hate when professors put lecture notes on it. Are we so dumb at this point that we can't take notes from speech alone?

What's worse, I have two professors now that require a PP presentation for EACH project. I hate relying on PP and I refuse to put anything up on the computer screen unless it's a photo, map, chart, or graph. It's a tool, and it's so so so abused by professors.

Even worse, at least the professors know how to make a "decent" PP layout. Meanwhile in high school (and now in college) I was killed by people who had crappy looking, jumbled, unattractive and all-too-complicated layouts.
War Bride, I will second you on hating Powerpoint lectures, and raise the stakes a little: imagine that you don't even get to ATTEND the lecture, because you are a distance learning student, and you get the joy of working solely from the downloaded powerpoint slides. Because somehow, it has not occurred to the lecturers or the administration that some of the stuff coming out of the lecturer's mouth during a lecture *might* just be useful.

(I have to say I have NEVER seen any powerpoint slides of CS lectures online that were worth the effort. They seem to function purely as a slightly more detailed version of the syllabus, that's all.)

So. Could be worse, is all I'm saying.

disgruntled distance learning student
When I took over a sick colleagues class many years ago I discovered he was still in the first chapter of the book after two months of classes (don't ask, we speak no ill of the dead). To catch the students up, I carefully wrote out detailed lecture notes and distributed them to the students. I told them that they should bring the notes to class, and mark in them additional material that we discussed. It worked pretty well.

What I have gone to is doing the same for my current classes and putting the notes on Blackboard the day before class. This way students can follow along in class, and I can add materials. I put a lot of problems in the notes but don't work them out there, rather I do so on the chalk board in the class.

Some may object the students will read the notes and not come to class. They do so anyhow.
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