Taking notes

Today I had reason to cast my mind back to October 14, 1974, the date on which I attended my first lecture as an undergraduate student. The place was the Old Chemistry Theatre in the then science building in Trinity College Dublin. No, I wasn’t a science student, I was reading law: but in those days Trinity had few adequate lecture theatres, and this was one we used quite a bit. It was an interesting location, as there was always a faint whiff of gas in the room, and on the benches you could read what seemed at the time to me to be the rather nerdy graffiti of the chemists.

Next to me at this opening lecture was a girl whom I was meeting for the first time on this occasion. I don’t actually know what happened to her since our Trinity days, but by heavens she was organised. As I watched her unpack her bag I was amazed to see colour-coded binders and pens, and as she opened up her note book and held her pen at the ready, she offered the observation that academic success was all about ‘keeping a good set of notes’. Then the Professor of Law entered and began lecturing (with minimal introductions, as I recall), and my neighbour was off! Head down, as far as I could tell she took down every word he said. Even when he repeated his statement (as he often did), she took it down again. She didn’t do shorthand, but she was a fast writer, but the speed of the writing that was required made her look agitated at times. I was so fascinated by this display I didn’t take down a single word on that occasion. As a result I never worked out what was the initial argument that introduced us to the law of torts. At the end of the lecture I’m not sure she did, either, but she could certainly look it up; I couldn’t.

A few years later when I started lecturing, one of the things that irritated me most was when a student was visibly just transcribing my words of wisdom without stopping to think about them. I used to interrupt my own lectures from time to time to invite such students to make a comment, and to encourage them to see the lecture as a dialogue rather than a speech. I succeeded with some, but there were always others to whom a complete set of notes was a matter of religion rather than of learning. To try and re-educate these I sometimes told students that, for a few minutes at least, they were not allowed to write anything – they should just listen and then respond.

I wonder what it is all like now. Recently I was chatting to a group of students and asked them whether they took notes at lectures, and what approach they had to them. Some never went to lectures and so couldn’t offer a view, but those who did seemed to me to have an approach not unlike that of my neighbour in the Old Chemistry Theatre. And indeed the non-attenders thought this was great, because their approach to picking up what they were missing was to borrow (or even buy, I discovered) the regular attenders’ notes.

It seems we still have a way to go before we have persuaded students that active learning trumps highly organised regurgitation. But then again, when I put that to the students I was talking to, they replied that they would believe me when first they saw a hyper-organised note-taker fail the exams, or at least perform at a grade worse than a 2.1. We are, they suggested, good at talking up the value of active learning, but very bad at rewarding it. So maybe that’s something to think about.

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11 Comments on “Taking notes”

  1. Mike Scott Says:

    My father used to lecture (in Queens University Belfast) in a hall which still had black-out blinds from the war years. At the start of each lecture he would pull down the blinds and lecture in complete darkness, except for the light from his slide projector. The idea was to actively prevent students from taking notes, and thus force them instead to listen to and understand what he was saying. After the lecture the students would rush outside and quickly write down what they could recall of the lecture. Its hard to imagine being allowed to innovate like that these days!

  2. Wendymr Says:

    You actually remember the date of your very first undergrad lecture as a student? And you shake your head at students who try to take verbatim notes. Now, there’s irony…

  3. Vincent Says:

    Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh, NUI,Galway. If you get a chance, request permission to attend one of his lectures if you can, it will be worth it.
    Notes from one of his, amount to 200 words, tops. Even the Cadet Corps attend his lectures and that’s saying something, for I suspect that they have every Note since the ’20s sitting within the Rin-More. And he is far from the only one I could mention from NUI,Galway.
    On the other side, there are those lecturers who will speak a line and then repeat it at half the speed. Those that deliver at the speed of a helicopter mounted Gatling gun, and those where the entire notion behind the Course is so flimsy that the only way is to baffle like some Carbon Monoxide addled witchcraft.
    Mostly though, note taking depends very much on the style of the lecturer, ?.

  4. Iain Says:

    Or the modern approach that’s sweeping across the US and beyond:


  5. Steve Says:

    I write furiously in lectures. Mostly it’s the lecturer’s main points and then my own thoughts on the matter. It probably looks like I’m just transcribing though. And even if I was… I’m very forgetful at the best of times, constant rewriting helps me. Active learning is different for everyone. In one class this semester (on Kant, naturally enough) I couldn’t understand most of what was said, but by basically transcribing I found I could get the gist after a couple of re-reads. Trying to understand some lectures as they happen is futile. I’d suggest a good portion of it is in the presentation.

  6. Scott Says:

    I took fairly comprehensive notes, but to keep awake and focused, mainly. I often didn’t go back to read them at all.

    • seamus Says:

      I do this also.

      occasionally a lecturer says ‘all these notes are online’. clearly thinking I look too busy writing to be thinking about the material. The guys that look like they’re thinking, are thinking about football.

      for understanding to happen, listening needs to happen first. taking a few notes can help. Sitting motionless for an hour will not.

  7. kevin denny Says:

    I think the fine old art of note taking has diminished partly because material is increasingly provided through software like Blackboard. So the lectures consist of a PowerPoint show which the students download beforehand. Except that many now do not think it necessary to turn up as now they have “the notes”. So lectures become passive with materiel going from one computer to the next without necessarily going through anyone’s brain.
    I provide as little as possible electronically to combat this dreadful trend. It does not make one very popular but I am satisfied it is the right think to do.

  8. Scott Says:

    I think the best situation is where there may be some substantial advance reading but the lecture doesn’t “go over” any of that…it adds the lecturer’s expertise and voice to that of any texts.

  9. cormac Says:

    Hmmm…I often come across the opposite. Some students (usually male) seem to take no notes in class. Good for them, except for one thing – memory is a treacherous thing.
    Of course, most of my notes are on the web and the students print them out. Most then add in the little explanations and extras that are discussed in class in the margins (that is why they attend). I’m always fascinated by those who don’t – how could anyone possibly remember the useful analogies and probems 2 months later?

    • kevin denny Says:

      I find many not taking notes. Even in cases where i provide nothing electronically. When you provide material electronically, even if minimal as I do, I think that students infer that that is what is important and all the extras like analogies and examples is just harmless chat. Its not of course.

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