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.