Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Note taking in discussion

We had a discussion a while back about note taking methods and the general merits of note taking. And we've sometimes lamented that students struggle to learn via discussion.

An observation: Many students, once 'discussion' starts, stop taking notes. Their approach to note taking is informational — not analytic. That might work in other disciplines, but in philosophy, where one of our goals is for students to engage in critical inquiry, not taking notes during discussion amounts to not creating a record of the most substantial part of the learning experience.

But here's a description of a study that suggests the problem may be that students are not 'cued up' to take quality notes in response to discussion:

Researchers tested different note-taking “cues” in biology lectures over two semesters. They provided partial notes for all lectures, including summaries of key points, some Powerpoint slides, appropriate references, and readings. More material was available on the course website.

Some material was not contained in the partial notes. Students had to realize that they should be taking some notes that were not provided to them: Four different methods of communication, or “cues,” were used:

•  “Presentation of a slide or overhead for verbatim copying

•  A key statement or phrase, written on a whiteboard and elucidated further through spoken description and discussion.

•  A discussion of a key idea, involving questions and answers with the students but not involving any writing on slides or whiteboards.

•  An ‘interactive window'; the setting of a small problem for discussion between two or more students for 3–5 minutes, with encouragement from the lecturer and at the end. This is followed by a brief plenary in which students share their examples and a spoken  summary by the lecturer.” (i.e., a think-pair-share)

The researchers then examined samples of students' notes (procured by asking students to volunteer anonymously. Carbon paper was provided). Notes were scored for word count and quality, or evidence of understanding. Major results were as follows:

•  Students who recorded more words tended to have higher quality notes as well.

•  The slide cue resulted in the most frequent “capture” of material. Slide cue notes were the lowest quality, not demonstrating contextualization or understanding.

•  The discussion-only cue produced the least complete and lowest quality notes.

•  The interactive window cue produced the highest proportion of notes that demonstrated some understanding, but showed low capture. However, scores on test questions were higher for topics with the interactive window cue.
There's a lot to glean from this study. The message? To my eyes, that students' conception of taking notes is essentially passive, an exercise in information absorption instead of analytic dissection and appraisal. More exactly, we see the I'll-write-it-down-only-if-you-did principle in action. If it's on a slide or on the board, it ends up in the notes. But the result of that strategy is high 'capture', low understanding. The more discursive or interactive cues were a little better with respect to understanding but low on 'capture.'

Obviously, the ideal would be high capture and high understanding. To some extent, I'm sympathetic to students in this situation: Trying to process and critically analyze information at the same time is tough.

What can we do? One thing I've noticed about myself is that I tend to write less on the board when my class discussion is more open ended and free flowing. Part of the reason is, frankly, it's hard. When multiple claims are in the air, with multiple objections, etc., it's not easy to pause the discussion, synthesize what's been said, and try to capture it with some boardwork. But if we accept the I'll-write-it-down-only-if-you-did principle, then perhaps it makes sense to attempt to summarize discussion points in writing.This seems to be something working on: more impromptu, discussion-driven boardwork.

On the other hand, perhaps the solution is to contest the I'll-write-it-down-only-if-you-did principle by helping students figure out to walk and chew gum simultaneously. Often enough, I'm simply baffled when students put down their pins when discussion starts. How can we counteract this tendency?

(The study in question: Huxham, M. (2010). The medium makes the message: Effects of cues on students' lecture notes. Active Learning in Higher Education 11, 179-189.)


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  2. Interesting study. Thanks for passing it along. I often find that students intent on taking notes don't contribute effectively to the class discussion I want them to have. Not only are these high capture, low understanding moments, but the weak discussion offers them less to think about and understand. One response I've tried is to place a temporary moratorium on noting taking. Students must put pen and paper aside while we discuss the topic. When the discussion ends (perhaps after a time limit) I place students in groups and ask them to reconstruct notes from their collective memory of the conversation. They explicitly jot down what they feel they may have forgotten or don't understand. We then reconvene to answer questions or summarize the highlights. It's time intensive, so I don't do this often. My impression is that class discussions improve (since students aren't distracted with notes) and that collaborative note taking provides good opportunities for reflection and summary.

  3. I appreciated this post a great deal. Because I now teach hybrid (part online, part on-campus), I have a tremendous amount of material online. I tell students right at the beginning of class that they do not need to take notes, unless doing so is what works for them. Everything, including my PowerPoint files, is available online.

    At times, I will see that students print out notes/PP's before class and make notes on the sides. I prefer an interactive classroom, particularly since I don't see my students every day due to the course format. I have had good luck with the transparency of the notes, etc. online.

    In a different class (same schedule format), students must review the material ahead of time to answer a discussion forum question on Monday, then we meet on Wednesdays and I hand out questions as class is starting. Since students are co-leading the discussion, there literally isn't time for much note-taking. However, my hope is that since students pre-reviewed the cognitive pieces, then immersed themselves further in the discussion, this will lead to the type of comprehension they can apply later. I would love to hear other thoughts on this discussion. Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof


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