Friday, March 16, 2018

Handwritten Notes: Definitely Better Than Laptop-generated For College Classes

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General Physics students, ca. 1970 at USF, taking notes in lecture hall.
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Partial view of my class notes for Stellar Evolution course, Spring, 1971.

The front page WSJ piece, 'I'd Be An 'A' Student If I Could Just Read My Notes', (March 13),  garnered little sympathy from me, and I am sure the many professors who now have declared laptops off limits in class.  To those of us in an older generation, taking notes by hand in college - using cursive (e.g. actual handwriting) - ought to be no biggie. You just do it.

But according to the WSJ article, today's crop of college students feel handicapped without their laptops. According to one quoted in the piece: "I always had beautiful, color coded notes in high school"  but was shocked to learn many professors at Georgetown University "don't allow laptops in their lecture halls"

And who can blame them? The clacketty clacking of fingers plunking on a keyboard is definite distraction especially multiplied by dozens. Also, the sight (for a lecturing prof) of so many heads geared to the assorted laptop monitor screens.   As noted (ibid.):

"Professors are weary of looking out over a sea of laptops, with students' faces aglow from who knows what. Are they taking notes? Ordering sneakers on Amazon? Checking out memes?"

Indeed, or perhaps going to a porno site. Professors aren't sure and they'd rather have the devices out of the lecture room entirely. Besides, it's good for the students and hand notes enable better learning (see the SciAm link at the bottom).

According to one professor  (Carol Holstead) at the University of Kansas quoted in the article:

"I really get tired of seeing them out there on their laptops and doing something other than pay attention to me."

True to her take she banned all laptops three years ago and "now tells students when it is time to pick up their pens and take notes on a particular point."

Seriously? She is way too generous.  In my years at Loyola, - and later USF- whether the course was Theology, Ethics, Logic, Biblical Exegesis,  English literature, chemistry, physics, geodesy or celestial mechanics  - the onus was on the student to have the common sense (and intelligence) to know when to take notes and when not to. We had no Jesuit profs (or transplanted Yale profs at USF) giving us heads ups on what parts of lectures were note-worthy. Talk about coddling!  Don't believe me? Then take in this balderdash (ibid.):

"Students complain professors just don't understand how hard it is to write by hand."

Awww....give the little infants a sippy  cup. But a large part of the problem is that "a whole generation of students never learned to write in script and have entered college."

In 1964 at Loyola, this would have been cause to instantly pull an admission as unqualified because of basic incompetence.  I mean, writing in script - as for note taking in courses - was taken for granted as much as being able to use a slide rule in physics class, or using the Dewey decimal system in library research - say for a philosophy or English lit paper. In today's context it would be judged roughly the same as being able to use a smart phone.

So how  do today's little dweebs manage without laptops and someone telling them it's  note taking time? Evidently, there are loads of strategies including: "using abbreviations and getting  notes from  classmates with better penmanship". Also,  "recording lectures on cell phones.". . (Which, of course, means the notes must be transcribed later).

There are also ways to be granted an exception. For example, college faculties that disallow laptops will make exceptions for students with disabilities, and conditions such as dyslexia and dysgraphia (an inability to write properly). The problem with invoking these excuses is that faculty will be obliged (usually) to explain to other conforming students why there are 'x' exceptions. In that case, the students claiming the disability or condition are "outed".

This will lead students who might otherwise be tempted to get an excuse to think twice. Like a Univ. of Connecticut kid - Christopher Wojick - quoted in the article, e.g.

"The class was ridiculously hard to take notes in and I was thinking. ' I have a disability?"

He acknowledged being close to "making something up" then "thought the better of it."  So is now toughing it out with his note taking. Good idea, at least he proved he wasn't a total wimp. (See also the terrific book, A Nation Of Wimps -by Hara Estroff Marano. She documents how  the current generation of college students are hobbled in their skills, coping abilities, etc. with helicopter parents to boot.

What should a high school student do today to prepare for college note taking? Easy, take a penmanship course or learn it on your own! An hour or so practice a day, and by the time the fall semester begins you ought to be proficient in note taking.

See also:


When it comes to college students, the belief that more is better may underlie their widely-held view that laptops in the classroom enhance their academic performance.  Laptops do in fact allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, collaborate more easily on papers and projects, access information from the internet, and take more notes.  Indeed, because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write out their notes by hand.  Moreover, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor.

Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date.  Only it isn’t  New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more.

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