Thursday, February 08, 2007

Is Note Taking a Dying Art?

When I was in school, our teachers would terrify us with the prospect of the note taking we would face, when we got to university. In school, they would dictate the information, or write it on the chalk board. As young things, the prospect of taking all the information in a lecture and then have to condense it down into meaningful prose, without assistance, was a big concern. There were few tips available about how to learn to 'take notes', but we were assured that it was a skill we would just have to develop. By and large we did.

In my largish class this semester, which is a history of philosophy class, I have noticed that students seem to take relatively few notes. If I write something on the black board, then they will write it down, for sure, but that is about it. The other day, I decided to ask the students about this.

It seemed that only about three of them took more than a couple of pages of notes each class. This was a shock to me! I generally get through two, or three pages of my lecture notes. These notes are not that detailed either. They are more like talking points about the texts, and the relevant arguments, often peppered with useful facts about the historical context. These I have structured in a manner such that they have a logical flow. I use them largely to ensure that I do not forget to adequately cover the important points. There is a great deal more information in each class, than is in my notes.

Why don't the students take notes any more? Do they think that they are gifted with perfect memories? What is the deal? I was especially surprised at the lack of note taking recently, as we have been covering some of the technical medieval concepts that appear in Descartes' Third Meditation. Before I teach this material, even though I know it well, I always go over it ahead of time, to make sure that I do not mix up 'objective reality', with 'formal reality', or 'actual reality'. Without notes, how do the students expect to be able to remember which is which?

What amazes me about this attitude to class notes is the tremendous waste of intellectual capital that it represents. Some time ago, I suddenly had to teach Plato's Republic for the first time, after many years of not looking at the text. In addition to rereading the material, one of my best resources for preparing classes were my own notes, from when I was a student. Should any of these students ever become professors, they are robbing themselves of a wonderful potential resource. Why do they do this? Even doing well on the mid-term and final exam is, to a degree, predicated, upon recalling the subtleties of the text, that are discussed in class. Surely, they should at least care about this? Apparently, they do not.

The cause of the decline in note taking are not hard to fathom. The popularity of requests for 'study guides', suggests that some faculty members have decided to take the notes for the students. When students ask me for a study guide, they always seem perplexed when I suggest that their notes are their study guide. On-line facilities like the evil Blackboard, and the less bad Moodle, probably have also had an impact too. It is still a shame though, in my view.

When I go to a talk, if it is a good one, I always take notes. This means that if something relevant to the talk shows up later, I can check my notes and find the example I need. Indeed, over the years, I have developed my own note taking short hand. This is made up of symbols from various logical systems, mathematical functions and letters from a few alphabets (mostly Greek and bizarrely even the Theban one). I also have some standard abbreviations. I can read it easily. Others often find it a little challenging.

I believe that the decline in note taking may be a generational phenomenon. Last year, I had a very good more mature student who took very detailed notes, every class. This student would then type them up. If a question arose, they would e-mail, or call for clarification. This student was a wonderful asset to the entire class. Should someone miss a class, they knew who to ask for the notes. This student has now graduated, so I am left with the non-note taking young ones.

Perhaps note taking is just in a temporary decline. I do hope that this is the case. As we were assured when I was in school, to be able to take good notes is a skill that has to be learned. It would be a shame if this skill was to be lost.

The CP

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