Friday, March 16, 2007

Why You Should Take Notes


In my recent post on students who don't take notes in class I seem to have hit a nerve. One commenter casually referred to my claim, that failure to take notes is (as my high school teachers would have called it back in the sixties) a bad study habit, as "outrageous." There seems to be a huge gap between me and a lot of other people on this issue.

Before I say more, just one autobiographical comment on where I am coming from here. I am making the following comments, not as a teacher, but as a student. Over the years, I have sat in on courses in a number of other departments in the university, in several cases taking all the quizzes and exams, or handing in a seminar paper. For every semester of the past ten years, I have been an MATC student. I play second violin in the Madison Community Orchestra, which technically is an MATC class. And more than just technically, since a conductor is a sort of teacher and an orchestra really is a community of learners (=class). This is why I sound like a know-it-all about being a student. I've been one since the first Eisenhower/Stevenson election, and will remain one until I am too old to get around anymore.

What is the point of taking notes? One of the commenters decries the "Medieval" practice of expecting each of the eighty students in a class to hand-make their own copy of what the prof says, when the instructor (if not too lazy) could make one electronic set of notes and mass-produce them, saving the student a lot of pointless low-tech busywork.

If that were the point of taking notes, I would be against it too. (At least if you have a nice prof who will do it for you.) Well, what is the point? Actually, there is one, and the Medieval handicraft theory misses about half of it.

One of the best things about Madison's Cinematheque series is the opportunity it sometimes gives me to watch a movie in the company of the celebrated David Bordwell. David is one of the founders of UW's fine film studies program and has for a long time had a strong and healthful influence on film studies people throughout the English-speaking parts of the world. (Added later: I just found out that David has a blog on film. Way cool! See blogroll on at left.) The first time I sat next to him, I noticed that (you probably guessed where I was going with this) he was taking notes on these Budd Boetticher westerns we were watching. I should say that he was taking notes with one hand, because with the other hand he was operating a mechanism for counting the shots in the movie. I was sure that if he could have figured out a way to use his feet in watching the film, he would have been operating foot-pedals as well! He was completely, actively involved in watching that movie!

The way David watches a movie is completely different from the way most people do: they sit passively, letting the experience wash over them, or (to switch metaphors) plugging into the artist's dream-world as a superior substitute for their own. The reason for the difference is obvious: for David, film is an academic subject, which he is learning. The normal way of watching a movie is perfectly okay, provided that it is not a subject you are trying to learn.

There are at least two major functions to taking notes. One is to make a record of what you are experiencing at the moment, so that you can consult it later. The product of the note-taking process is a prosthetic memory. This function can of course be fulfilled by a ready-made, prof-written set of notes. (But I would add that if you have a "lazy" prof who, like me, won't provide ready made notes, you have to, have to make your own!)

The other function of taking notes cannot be carried out by prof-supplied notes. This function is fulfilled, not by the product, but by the process of note-taking itself. Everyone who has learned a foreign language knows that the more sense modalities you involve in learning a new word, the better. Just hearing it cannot be enough. You must also say it. And see it, written down. And write it. In addition to involving more senses, this approach also has the great virtue of making you more active, less passive. Learning is an activity. This is the most important single fact about it. It is not a "passivity," a sitting there and being-filled-up with True Dogma.

This is the main reason I am opposed to prof-written notes. The people who do this are encouraging the students to sit there like the normal movie-goer, passively absorbing the experience. This to me is pedagogical suicide. The only sort of subject where this could possibly be appropriate is one that can be taught dogmatically. Here is the truth, shut up and learn it! If there are any such subjects, I guess they would probably be elementary courses in the hard sciences. Even in those fields, though, as soon as you go beyond the elementary level, you must become a scientist and practice science yourself.

But in no case can learning ever be passive. Don't just sit there! Think! Write! Speak! Act!!

One of the virtues of the second, process-based, function of note-taking is that it helps you to focus. One of the anonymous commenters said that if a lecturer is disorganized, note-taking can be distracting and counter-productive. I have found, on the other hand, that note-taking helps me to find the structure in a lecture. When I take notes, I indent subordinate points, creating an outline-like visual structure. The activity of doing this while listening helps to bring out whatever structure (if any!) that there is in a talk. It is like looking at something with a magnifying glass, as opposed to using your naked eyes.

Of course, the fact remains that Anonymous does not have this same experience. S/he also says that s/he is either a thinking machine or a writing machine, not both at once. I have heard this same claim many times over the years.

I answer both these points with an analogy. When you play in an orchestra, you are often told to look up at the conductor. But you find that if you take your eyes off the music on your stand you can't see the notes you are supposed to play -- and may even lose your place! Its a fight between your brain and your fingers for control of your eyes. You can't look at the conductor -- to see changes in dynamics, tempo, and expression -- and also play the right notes!

Is this an argument against watching the conductor? No. It is an argument for practicing, and learning the notes so that you can play and watch at the same time.

My theory about this is that the often heard complaint, I can't think and write at the same time, can be remedied with more practice. For years I felt the same conflict between following the lecturer and taking notes on my laptop. I could handwright-and-think, but I couldn't keyboard-and-think. Recently, I broke through this barrier, and now I find that lap-top note-taking is even more consciousness-raising than the other kind. So if you come to a philosophy department colloquium, you will see me taking notes on my laptop. But it took me a while to get there!

The reason note-taking is important is not the authoritarian one that everyone should write out the precious words of the possessor of True Dogma. Jesus of Nazareth only had four people writing his words. Why should I have eighty? The real reason, or part of it, is the anti-authoritarian idea that learning is not the same thing as passively being taught. Teaching is an activity, true enough. But so is learning.

Footnote: Take a look at the Thomas Eakins painting at the top of this page. It shows Prof. Gross lecturing to the doctors of the future. Behind him are two people. One is taking notes. The other is not. Would you like to have your brain your heart cut into by someone who did not believe in taking notes in med school? ("Let's see, where was that artery, anyway?")
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