Does it really matter whether you take notes with a laptop or by hand?

A recent study on the merits of note-taking by hand (instead of using a laptop) further adds to the evidence that taking notes like our parents did is the better intellectual exercise. Or does it?

I stayed clear of the laptop vs pencil debate for two reasons: 1) Everyone already knows I let my students use their laptops, tablets, cellphones to take notes and post to twitter during class. They might also be doing other things, but I firmly believe that it is their responsibility to figure out how to best multi-task (or if they should multi-task at all) and suffer the consequences if there are any. I am not the anti multi-tasking police. 2) Hidden between the layers of the anti-laptop argument is an anti-technology argument, and well, yawn.

Cathy Davidson‘s take (with reliable evidence) is here. It is such a refreshing contribution on what I have felt is a turgid debate that utterly misses the point. I am grateful to Cathy for articulating this so much more elegantly than I ever could!

The problem is that trying to advocate for one type of note-taking versus another in lecture is a bit like advocating for aol over prodigy dial-up service. It’s not where the note-taking happens that’s the problem – the problem is that we are still using a totally outdated delivery mechanism.

Very little learning happens in a lecture, and even less learning happens in a lecture hall with 300 students. So let’s move the conversation to where it matters: how can we create an effective learning environment (I’ll leave the discussion for how we might assess effective learning for another post)? Cathy Davidson suggests Think.Pair.Share,. and that’s a fine way to break a lecture up,  and there are many more. But whatever we do – we need to make the notion of 50 or 80 minutes lectures obsolete.

Let’s start by making all lecture halls flexible – no more chairs with attached tables that are drilled in one place. We need wifi everywhere. And multiple screens or white boards, so that there’s no obvious “front of the class”. Every lecture hall should have wireless mics. Let’s also destroy the pedestal (both the physical one and the figurative one) that the professor stands on. And let’s develop plans that integrate what the instructor will talk about with what students will talk about based on what they have already read and worked on in pre-class assignments. Then let’s revise what we expect them to have learned in post-class assignments/quizzes/tests. The lecture can no longer be the pillar of the university education, because it is no longer an effective teaching tool.

Learning is not linear, it is reiterative and collaborative. If students spent more time in class talking to each other about the class, they wouldn’t need to take as many notes, because they’d remember a lot more about it. And the few notes they’d need to take – well, it doesn’t matter to me if they scribble them in a paper notebook, dictate them to siri or type them out on a laptop. I just hope they are sharing their notes widely.

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