Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Root of the Problem: Bad Study Habits!

A student emailed me yesterday saying that, reading over the reports of the recent flap about Len Kaplan's legal process class, the first thing that struck him, with the wildly conflicting reports of what Len said, was "the absolute crappiness" of the notes that people must have been taking in that class. This I think was a very astute comment, pointing up an aspect of the case that had escaped everyone else's notice. It was even more astute than he could have realized. One of the two eye-witness student accounts of the now-notorious lecture casually mentions that no one in the class, a class of over twenty people, was taking any notes at all! If they all had been taking notes, this whole you-said-this, no-I-didn't controversy might never have happened. The cause of it all may have been, not so much racism, as what my highschool teachers used to call "bad study habits." If the people there could have consulted their notes, there may have been nothing to argue about.

The student account goes on to explain that the reason that no one was taking any notes was the "informal" nature of the class.

The first thing I want to say to this is: Huh?

I don't see how a class could be that informal. This was, after all, a class. In a university. It had no point other than to change your thinking (in a good way) in the future. This is something it can't do unless you can remember it. And you know that you will forget 99% of what is happening at any moment unless you record it somehow. So everybody was treating the class as if they would have no need to remember what happened there. And yet.... Sorry. Does not compute.

My students know that this is one of my pet peeves. Why is it that so many students do not take notes any longer? Has something happened to render such behavior rational? What on earth could it be? It isn't that people have discovered some new, better way of remembering things, other than writing them down. There isn't one. So what gives?


Anonymous said...


I think this is an interesting question. There might be a few different explanations.

At the undergrad level, I know that a number of professors have begun using Powerpoint and supplying the students with the slides by e-mail afterwards. Other professors have taken to posting all of their lecture notes on-line after class. These might explain the phenomenon a bit. However, it doesn't explain why students wouldn't take notes in a class that didn't do this. My suspicion is that, in classes that don't do this, note-taking is still the norm.

At the grad level, I occasionally talk to students who don't take notes in seminars because they know that there are no cumulative tests of the material, so they don't take regular notes. I've only known a few students who do this, however.

Lester Hunt said...

Matt W,

"At the undergrad level, I know that a number of professors have begun using Powerpoint and supplying the students with the slides by e-mail afterwards... These might explain the phenomenon a bit."

Sure -- maybe they are just falling out of the habit. I hadn't thought of that.

As to the point about the graduate students, you may be right about that as well. But in neither case (as you would probably agree) does the explanation make the behavior rational.

For instance, in the seminar you were in (assuming you are the matt w I know) there were twelve students. Of these, about 3 (1/4 of the total) handed in papers at term's end that touched on some issue that I had talked about at some length (at least 1/2 hr.) and failed completely to respond to what I had said. This could only be because they weren't taking notes when we talked about that issue. (Obviously, you weren't one of these three!)

Anonymous said...


I do agree--I don't think the behavior is rational; I was just trying to give a causal explanation.

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to offer up my personal experience (so this may or may not be worthless, probably the former) as a student who very infrequently takes notes (though I always have the pen and paper ready to do so).

I find in general there are two types of professors, those that are very organized and very methodical in their thought/teaching process and those that are less so.

In the cases where they are not organized, I find that if I take the time to write down what they said, I end up not understanding what they mean (I can be a dictation machine or an understanding machine, generally not both or one of the two will be greatly lacking) and usually by the time I'm done writing and have a chance to reflect upon what they said (and realize that I don't really understand) they've moved on to something else (and, depending on how organized they are, that could be a completely different topic and my ship for asking that question has failed). In these cases I these classes I tend to just try learning what the professor taught on my own and trust that I will do better than the students that actually try to understand the professor (usually I'm right as I tend to fall on the good part of the curve).

With the organized professors it's frequently the case that they provide notes and in the cases they don't, I often find that they've condensed complex thoughts into fairly easy to digest bites. Often these professors will get my mind racing on the topic and I couldn't possibly write what the professor is saying and keep up with or write down my own train of thought on the matter (this particularly true of philosophy courses, less so with other subjects, esp. those that I'm not particularly interested in), but as I tend to enjoy actually thinking (something that is sorely lacking from most college courses which tend to focus on memorizing and regurgitating - I had enough of that in high school) I end up remembering the material fairly well despite not having written it down.

As such, I tend to not take notes because either I don't feel writing what the professor is saying will make much difference or because I'm too busy thinking about and understanding what is going on to care to write it down (so I may not remember the professors exact words, but I know what they meant and I probably have dozens of my own different thought trains on the matter as well).

And, finally, not to be a suck up (as I'm posting this anonymously) I find you fall into the category that actually has me thinking most of the time (though not always agreeing, but such is the nature of philosophy :P).

Lester Hunt said...


Like Matt, you've raised aspects of the issue that I had not thought about before or wasn't aware of at all. I will try to write a new post on this soon.

One thing I can say now is that, if there are many cases at UW of profs whose lectures are so disorganized that note-taking becomes counter-productive, this ought be be seen as a great scandal. They just aren't doing their job. But as I'll try to explain later, I don't think that this could be a full statement of what's actually going on in those cases.

Anonymous said...

I'm the anonymous above, and I guess I should clarify that part of what I mean by disorganized is teaching the exact same material that's in the book, but in a less succinct manner - if the professor isn't adding anything to the material in the book, I have no reason to take notes because I already have a textual form of what he said (disorganization in the sense of teaching me the same material twice while pretending it's teaching me something new). If the professor is clarifying what is in the book (depending on how much extra clarity was needed) notes may also not be necessary as having the extra explanation may be enough to have re-readings of the book be sufficient for understanding.

Lester Hunt said...


Just a brief comment about that. You raise two sorts of cases. The first, in which the prof adds nothing to the book, sounds once again like incredibly bad teaching to me. Are you sure that there are classes at a supposedly very good university, where the prof adds nothing to what's in the book? Anyway, I can think of one good reason to take notes, even in a class like that: to know and be able to remember which details, of the many that are in the book, are most likely to be on the exam (= those the prof actually mentions in class).

The second case is where the prof clarifies what is in the book. Here I would caution against assuming that simply reading or rereading the book will automatically remind you of these clarifying thoughts. There will be far too many of them for that to happen.

Anonymous said...

I can only speak anecdotally, but yes I've had classes here where I simply stopped attending the lectures (or would leave after attendance was taken) outside of test days because the professors essentially read the book for their lecture without adding anything.

As for the second case, again anecdotally, I don't find that I have problems with the retention of the material, but that may just be the nature of my memory.

Anonymous said...

... the outrageous assertion that:

No Note-Taking = Bad Study Habits

... has been politely corrected by some comments {above} -- but seems not to have convinced the asserter.

Any words that a lecturer can possibly speak in a classroom can be written down -- and hard copy provided to students. A competent & organized teacher does so ... summarizing key points of the 'lesson', and anticipating likely student questions & misunderstandings.

IMO it's pure arrogance to expect rotating classes of students to all subjectively manufacture hand-copies of lecturer-wisdom ... when the lecturer could do so for all his students, quite efficiently.

Few classroom/seminar sessions at any level of formal education are so novel, spontaneous, and valuable ... that the 'teacher' can not prepare the lesson beforehand -- and provide students with relevant & concise lesson-information in other than fleeting verbal form.

In fact, well prepared {organized !) lessons do not even require classroom "lectures" (..nor

In the 21st Century, why are medieval teaching modes (..and attitudes) still the norm ??

Lester Hunt said...

"IMO it's pure arrogance to expect rotating classes of students to all subjectively manufacture hand-copies of lecturer-wisdom ... when the lecturer could do so for all his students, quite efficiently."

I was only discussing lectures because that was what the previous poster was talking about. In fact I maintain that you should take notes on the class including what other students say. That is sometimes more valuable and interesting than what your instructor says. It's all educational, but will only educate if you have some way of retrieving it.

One reason I am opposed to prof-written lecture notes is that it cannot reflect the all-important educational component of class discussion. Thus it encourages just the sort of arrogance (by suggesting that profs are educators and students are not) that you accuse me of.

Anonymous said...

["One reason I am opposed to prof-written lecture notes is that it cannot reflect the all-important educational component of class discussion"]

If students know more about the subject than the teacher ... and are routinely able to discuss new & relevant information -- then the teacher is unprepared, or is teaching some highly unusual, open-ended subject.

Teaching is communication -- and requires the teacher to fully know what and how to communicate.

How can "class discussion" be "all-important" (?) -- what would students possibly discuss that a competent teacher could not anticipate and have already incorporated into the lesson ?

Classroom socialization may be comforting to some, but is certainly unnecessary to objective teaching, beyond elementary grade levels.

Lester Hunt said...

"How can "class discussion" be "all-important" (?) -- what would students possibly discuss that a competent teacher could not anticipate and have already incorporated into the lesson ?"

I thought this authoritarian view of education went out with the Reformation! I'll post at length about this anon.

Lester Hunt said...

One more thing: if the subject I teach were so closed that no student could raise an idea or issue that is new to me, I would have died of boredom long ago!

Anonymous said...

{I'm the first anonymous, not the second}

To be fair, you teach philosophy and further you're not concerned with teaching only the history of philosophy like some philosophy professors are. You're actively looking for ideas - most professors are NOT.

In regards to your comment on college being a great scandal - I don't disagree. I'm not arguing that college doesn't provide any value, but what it does provide is vastly different from what is advertised and overall I do feel rather cheated - after several years of this I greatly look forward to getting my piece of paper so I can stop attending courses that teach me less than trying to learn the material on my own will.

Lester Hunt said...


I feel your pain! By the end of my career as a grad student I felt I had overdosed horribly on this being-a-student thing. Since then, though, I've found that taking a class really can be a pretty good way (for me)to learn certain things.

Sarvi said...

I realize I am responding more than two years late, but just in case you're still interested in the subject, here are some of my thoughts on notes:

I am an undergrad who has experienced both types of classes -- those with notes supplied by the professor, and those without. I take copious notes in both cases, because for me, writing something down helps me retain it. I may understand something being explained in class, but exams require more than following a thread of somebody else's argument -- they require being able to build the argument yourself. My notes are practically a transcript of the class, while some of my classmates have notes that are more like an outline (and still others have notes that are like a drawing of Pomeranian done on a cocktail napkin). The ones who take the outline-like notes sometimes do quite well. There's no one-to-one relationship between notetaking style and success.

As far as the scandal of disorganized lecture material, or lectures that duplicate the text, I don't get it either. I find such classes infuriating, but there's not much I can do besides leave a strongly-worded evaluation (and I make it a point to give specific praise to instructors who have carefully prepared useful lectures). Professors and administrators live there, I'm just passing through.

Lester Hunt said...


You aren't really "late," as people do come to these old posts from time to time. And of course this issue is timeless. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.