Exactly 35 years ago I started my second year as an undergraduate law student in a Dublin university. My workload for that year consisted of four ‘subjects’ (no modules in those days), three of which I had been very much looking forward to. But I dreaded the prospect of the fourth. The subject-matter was dry beyond words, and in addition the lecturer concerned appeared only to have a passing interest in it. He had the habit of sitting while delivering the lectures, which he did in a monotone voice reading from a prepared text from which he never deviated, ever.
Anybody proposing to go into legal practice had to take this subject for professional reasons, and so he had a captive audience. Lecture attendance was compulsory, and each session began with a roll call. But it was impossible for any human being to follow the stuff, and so the 50 or so students in the hall would doodle, read a novel, write letters home, do a shopping list, or whatever came to mind to relieve the boredom. The lecturer never looked up from his notes, and what we did seemed to be of no consequence to him.
One thing we didn’t do was to take notes. The reason why we didn’t was because some bright spark a few years earlier had noticed that the lecturer kept precisely to his own prepared notes, and moreover that these never ever changed from year to year. As he could do shorthand, he took them down as dictation, typed them up and sold copies to every incoming second year student. He did a brisk trade, and once so equipped note taking was redundant. There was always the comic moment when the lecturer reached the end of the page, and there was loud theatrical turning of pages around the hall.
The general view back then was that the only thing that really mattered when it came to exam preparation was that you must have a ‘good set of notes’. This did not mean an analytical text that addressed the issues of the course in a critical manner; it meant a near-perfect reproduction of everything the lecturers had said, so you could learn it and then repeat it. Even then, this technique did not necessarily work, as some lecturers expected a much more intelligent approach, but it worked with enough of them to make it valid, by and large.
When I became a lecturer I quickly noticed that most students would write down every word I said however trivial or irrelevant. I swear that some of them started writing when I said ‘good morning’. So at first I would, at certain points in a lecture, tell student to stop writing and just listen and respond freely. As students got used to me they also got used to the idea that I wanted an exchange of ideas, and that I was not Moses handing out the tablets of law. I guess I had assumed that pedagogy had moved on recently and that both lecturers and students were now different. However, recently I was chatting with a very bright young student who told me in passing that he particularly liked a particular lecturer because ‘you can get great notes from his lectures.’ So is this particular practice still alive and well?
It is my view that if lectures are just occasions for a lecturer to disseminate ‘facts’ and ‘information’, then it has no legitimate purpose. Yes, there is scope and need for some information to be passed to the students, but there should be much more to it than that. They should be about stimulating the mind, not filling the memory. I think on balance that if I were lecturing today, I would ban all note taking altogether.