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.