Don’t Recycle that Spiral Notebook! by Director of Academic Support Gia Batty
From where I sit, which is usually in an orange office chair across from a student who is struggling academically, there is so much that is good about the increased role technology plays in education. This is especially true at Nobles where we have very thoughtfully incorporated many new technologies into our curriculum--from the iPads in the middle school to the Haiku sites teachers create for their classes and the use of Google Drive for sharing written work. Increased technology has made learning and teaching easier and more efficient for so many reasons. But what happens sometimes with something that’s new and has so many benefits for both students and teachers is that we tend to forget about all the positive aspects of the old way of doing things.
What I’m really talking about here is that very old school thing we used to do all the time called writing on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still all for writing essays on the laptop and for being able to collaborate with classmates on a Google Doc. The kind of writing I’m talking about is the really old-fashioned kind--the kind we do when we are learning.
I’m talking about taking notes. I’m talking about taking notes on paper with a pen.
More and more we’ve been encouraging students to try to incorporate the old school technique of taking notes by hand with the incredible new school tool of the laptop or iPad.
Peek into any classroom on campus and, more often than not, what you’ll see is an open laptop or iPad in front of each student. What you’ll hear is the steady, rapid clicking of keyboards as students are busy recording every word their teacher says. Sounds great, right? Not exactly.
It turns out that the ability a laptop gives you to transcribe an entire lecture creates a very passive kind of learning because, in essence, you become a transcriber of information, not a learner of information.
In the old days (which were really not that long ago), students had a notebook and a pen in front of them and they did their best to write down as much as they could. You knew you weren’t going to get it all down, but you figured out a way to get most of it. You wrote down the important stuff. You got the big ideas and then you filled in the details. You underlined terms your teacher said were important. You added stars and question marks and sometimes the petals of a daisy around one of the three holes on the side. Maybe you even wrote your boyfriend’s last name after your first name, just to see what it would look like. Doodles aside, this kind of notetaking was active. You were thinking about what you were writing. You were editing what your teacher said into manageable chunks that you could copy down into your notebook.
Since students can type faster than they can write, they end up just recording everything that is said without doing the kind of prioritizing or organizing or editing of information that has to happen when you write by hand. When you type, there is no need and no time to organize or synthesize the information When you take notes on paper, by design, you have to make choices, you have to think about what you are writing down. You draw arrows between concepts that are connected. You cross things out and rewrite them somewhere else. All of these choices require thinking. and the kind of processing that happens when you simply type everything your teacher says is a much shallower type of processing. To write requires a deeper level of thinking.
As it turns out, when it comes to taking notes, more isn’t better.
Here are a few ideas for incorporating the old school method with the new school one.
For those who are willing to take notes on paper, we suggest typing up their notes at home as part of their homework. This is actually a great way to study because you are basically building a study guide as you learn. This is also good to do because there is always the chance that the notebook will get left behind somewhere or damaged or recycled because it is made of paper.
For those still want to take notes on the computer, we try to train them to be more thoughtful about what they type and how much they type. Also, we tell students to print out their typed notes and go through them with a colored pen or highlighter. Both of these tasks create a more active learning process for students.
The truth is that, across disciplines, we want students to be thoughtful consumers of information. At a very simple level we want them to be able to consider if something is important or useful or effective. Doing this requires an active thought process, a sifting of information, and the confidence and experience to be able to determine what is important.
So, let’s not recycle those spiral notebooks and packs of college-ruled paper just yet. Dust them off and slide them into the backpack. I think there’s some space right behind that sleek new laptop.