Note this!

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.

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23 Comments on “Note this!”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I will not be handing over State Secrets when I say that back in the day UG lectures in the Classics Dept were somewhat dated. So dated in fact that the paper had yellowed. Given that the cadre of Cadets for the most part ended up at UCG there was nothing more certain than that there were full sets of notes floating about someplace for all lectures.
    Somewhat earlier, a now doctoral candadate had like your fellow taken down word for word the yellowed utterences and was flogging them to those that hadn’t bothered to turn up to 9am lectures where anything less that the sixteen in that year would be noticed and by name. Anyhow, I happened to catch sight of these notes and my hen scratched heading, sub heading , point point point conclusion were far better.
    However, there was no way on earth anyone could accuse that Dept of being self indulgent.

  2. kevin denny Says:

    No no, students don’t take enough notes. At least where students are provided with the Powerpoint slides the lecturer is using, they regard these as “the notes” so when I extemporize they just sit looking blankly like I’m engaging in some harmless chat. The act of taking notes forces students to think about the material.
    I think a tricker question is whether students should be allowed to bring laptops into class. RTE have a stock piece of footage of UCD students in a lecture theatre where one was clearly playing a card game unbeknownst to the lecturer. Me, as it happens.
    The slides I provide beforehand electronically are a subset of what I use in class which irritates some but actually a lot see the merit of the idea. I think the most important thing, by far, is to get away from passive learning where we pretend to teach and they pretend to learn.

    • Jilly Says:

      Could not agree more, Kevin. What you describe is exactly the problem – students appear to have lost the ability to take notes, and the advent of powerpoint slides which will be posted online after the lecture does seem to coincide exactly with the loss of this skill.

      FvP, taking good notes from a good lecture is a really valuable way of learning for undergraduates. And I stress GOOD notetaking, which isn’t by any means a matter of taking down every word the lecturer says, but instead a matter of capturing key concepts, often backed up with examples to illustrate those concepts, and laid out in a way which will make sense if you need to refer back to them 6 week or 6 months later. If you’re trying to guide students through complex ideas and subject matter, they need to take notes.

      The very process of trying to take good notes helps to concentrate the brain on the logical argument/development of ideas being described, as well as providing a reference point afterwards to refresh/untangle the key ideas. I still have most of my undergraduate notes, and they were absolutely invaluable as a guide to the knottier ideas I was encountering in my reading at the time. Moreover, some lecturers were better than others at providing this, and now that I’m a lecturer myself, I would consider “you can get great notes from her” as a high compliment. Far from preventing thinking, good notetaking is an aid to it.

      I’m considering not posting my powerpoint slides online this year (for the first time in years) so as to encourage better notetaking among the students.

      • Wendy Says:

        I refused either to post my Powerpoints online or give them out as handouts when I was teaching. Even then, I sometimes got essays containing word-for-word reproduction of some of my slides, which were just intended as headers and introduction of themes.

        However, until relocating to Canada (at which point a lot of stuff got sacrificed), I still had a great set of notes from my undergraduate Years 3 and 4 Industrial Relations lectures…

  3. iainmacl Says:

    Years ago when lecturing in physics I had the usual problems of trying to ‘cover the syllabus’ in the alloted lecture hours whilst also worrying about lack of student engagement. Having previously taken courses from the OU I decide to try and write an OU style (open/distance learning) coursebook for a module. It contained basic information and was structured into units which gave students references to particular sections in the main textbook and asked them to write notes from that, whilst setting them a number of questions (the style was friendly, with checklists, boxed key points, diagrams and cartoons). There were summaries of important proofs, problem sets, etc. I spent a while trying to realistically determine how much effort would be required in each aspect and set it out essentially as weekly guided study.

    Then in the actual lecture slots I was able to focus on the specific areas that students traditionally had difficulty understanding (‘threshold concepts’ in current jargon) turning them more into large tutorial sessions. I also used some of them to give lectures on practical applications or interesting side-issues with the intention of making these entertaining and motivational. Of course the main risk was that students wouldn’t work through the coursebook exercises, but a lot of effort in weekly tutorials and checklists showing how the weeks were going past helped and most managed to do so.

    Conclusion? it worked, student feedback on the materials was positive, the exam performance was good and attendance at lectures better than normal. Of course it was only a class of 150, but I continued the approach for that topic and variants of it for other modules where appropriate.

  4. Aidan Says:

    When I was a student I preferred the lecturers who gavce us handouts that we could write on. If you had to write everything down it was a massive effort and in an engineering discipline was one copy of each related text book in the library you really needed to get the info from the lecturer.
    Now everything is different because it is easy to find lecture notes or even text books with the same material on the net. In principle it should be much easier to be a much better student now but, of course, it depends on one’s motivation.
    I have studied traditionally and by distance learning and the latter format was far more effective at forcing students to think about the lecture material. This was largely because the format means that a lot more exercises tend to be needed to ensure students are still following the material. In a traditional environment the physical presence of a student seems to be enough to reassure the lecturer that he is following the course in the real sense of the world.
    To translate this to the work place. You always give meeting attendees copies of your slides but you also expect them to ask critical questions and take notes. University lecturers should really not be so different but I can understand that young, disinterested students would not necessarily follow best practices.

    • Jilly Says:

      Interesting points, Aidan. But I suspect that your last point may be very important – based on personal experience, I doubt that distance learning would be effective for the average 18-21 year-old, however good it is for older, more self-motivated students.

  5. Al Says:

    Isn’t the bigger question here that of student facilitation? Students should be facilitated where needed and be ‘less facilitated’ where they would be expected to exercise their initiative.
    At some point my facilitation of students needs while making me look like a great lecturer interferes with their functional development.
    Students should be able to come out of the most boring inert lecture with a good summary of it.
    Not because it is ideal, but because it is a real life experience and sometimes expected in employment.

  6. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    Should Students be forced to use them more during the semester. How many young fellows spend the whole semester doing whatever young guys do these days, and only “get the notes” the week before the exam.

    Mid terms are a well known way of dealing with this issue. But mid-term exams can be quite time consuming and labour intensive for faculty, and isnt feasible for many classes.

    I reckon Computer based testing should be used more in Irish third level, particularly for mid term exams.

    A Student could have a mid term once a week from the fourth week on. Nothing mindbogglingly hard, but just enough to make sure they are keeping up.
    “Privity of contract is (a)…”

    It might encourage students to engage with the material on an ongoing basis, which would help them understand it better, rather than try and cram at the end of the semester.


  7. Picking up the comments by Kevin and Jilly and others, I think it really depends on how the notes are taken and what they contain. The key issue is that the student needs to be an active participant in the classes. Extensive but passive note taking does not achieve that. Equally, I think that being a Powerpoint consumer may not achieve it either. I think the key task is to get the student to engage.

    Regarding Powerpoint, when we introduced it with some enthusiasm in the University of Hull in the late 1990s, with advance distribution of notes, the first effect was a dramatic decline in student attendance at lectures. Which is bad.

    • Vincent Says:

      But surely you could have gone to a more Socratic method given that you had removed the necessity of having to deliver the 50 min’s of Reading. All then you would have needed would have been a list of those in the class for a forced engagement.

      • Kevin O'Brien Says:

        The Socratic approach (by my understanding of the phrase) is very desirable.

        It is just that it would work well with some
        groups of students but not with others.

        It might not be suitable for all subjects areas, working better in humanities subjects than in science.

    • Jilly Says:

      I think we all made the mistake of advance-circulation of Powerpoint or other lecture materials in the early days. It’s not a mistake you make twice! But myself and many colleagues are now finding that even powerpoints posted only after the lectures are definitely reducing notetaking (and when I say reducing it, I mean in some cases students coming to lectures with no paper or pens, so it’s reduced to nil), and perhaps also reducing attendance too. Hence my contemplation of not posting the notes at all this coming year…

    • iainmacl Says:

      of course there has also been the use of clickers to promote discussion in class around key concepts. All first year science students in Galway will be issued with clickers in September as that college has decided to make lectures more interactive and discussion based. We just took delivery of 750 of the little devices. Very interesting project – of course they have been used for years in other courses and in other institutions, but this is a significant initiative in that it is across the board for all courses in a college.

  8. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    “Brig. Gen. H. R. McMaster, who banned PowerPoint presentations when he led the successful effort to secure the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar in 2005, followed up at the same conference by likening PowerPoint to an internal threat.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/27/world/27powerpoint.html


  9. I came late to university as an adult, evening student. Perhaps things had improved by the time I arrived but one thing that had to be learned was that a decent mark required thought and creative use of material. Memory tricks and the reproduction of facts might scrape a pass but nothing more.

    I’ve been at many lectures over the years and slept through some. I’ve tried all sorts of techniques for the delivery of effective lectures. (I don’t want to go into the meaning of “effective” here but it certainly involves delivery of data, explanation, context and generating interest and enthusiasm.) Here are two aphorisms: The first duty of a lecturer is to keep the students awake; the quality of a lecture tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of audio-visuals used.

    I’m now essentially post-PowerPoint, though it is useful on occasion. My method now involves the distribution of paper with an outline of the lecture and lots of room to scribble notes.

    • Jilly Says:

      “the quality of a lecture tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of audio-visuals used.” Colum, that’s a bit tough on those of us who teach visual material! But more generally, I take your point. No good lecture uses too many power-point slides etc.


      • Jilly,
        I was trying to go easy! I thought “is” was too provocative and substituted, “tends to be”. The notion first formed in my poor battered brain when Riverdance appeared for the third time and the guy was only 20 mins into the talk!!

  10. Al Says:

    Check this out
    http://www.prezi.com
    I think that it is brilliant, but I havent gottten to the stage where I can convert my existing notes, but hope to do a few new lectures soon

    Try a sample prezi to see.

  11. John Says:

    Unfortunate policy and practice at my current institution is provide handouts, including powerpoints, a day before the lecture. Putatively this is to allow our 20% non-native English speakers* time to read and allow motivated home students time to prep. In reality, the visiting students prefer handouts over lectures and the home students treat handouts as a trailer of our next episode. If they don’t “like” the trailer, they just skip the episode.

    *excluding British born students who live in non-English speaking homes/communities!


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