Paul on September 22nd, 2014

handandpencilLast month, I had reason to visit a nearby college campus.  While I was there I wandered into a mid-size lecture hall filled with earnest students who were attentively focused on what sounded to be a reasonably interesting speaker.  There were times when the collective clacking of the many dozens of laptops almost drowned out the lecturer.  From the back of the hall, the place felt more like a shopping mall than a classroom.  There were displays of every shape and size glaring at me from my back-of-the-room vantage point.  Every now and then a computer screen seemed to project something other than a backdrop for note-taking but that is entirely another issue.  At first, I was impressed at the students’ ability to type at “warp speed”.  I thought to myself, “How wonderful it must be to be able to write so much and still keep pace with the speaker”.  As an old-fashioned (emphasis “old”) person who types like someone playing “Whack-a-Mole”, I was dazzled.  And then upon reflection, I wasn’t so sure if what I was observing was a good thing or maybe something else.

I am reminded of that speech in the play, Inherit the Wind, where Henry Drummond is trying to reconcile modern science with the Biblical explanation of evolution and the creation of the world.  “Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it.  Sometimes I think there is a man who sits behind a counter and says, All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.  Madam, you may vote but at a price.  You lose the right to retreat behind a powder puff or your petticoat.  Mister, You may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline…”  Was there a price to pay for the apparent ease of note-talking using a laptop?

The operative context in determining the relative value of rapid-fire, computer-driven note-taking versus actually writing down the notes in cursive might be like comparing the role of a court reporter and a jury member.  The court reporter pays attention to every detail of a trial.  It is his or her job to faithfully include everything uttered or displayed during the proceedings.  Their work product is entirely free of any judgment, value proposition or emotion…an opinion-free, neutral, and I must say, complete record.   The jury members, on the other hand, are interested in only those details entered under oath that have a substantive bearing on the outcome of the case. Using their own judgment, they focus solely on those few facts and circumstances that are key ingredients in the creation of a fair verdict, one that is based upon actual content rather than an accumulation of verbiage.  One wonders who is more personally and substantively involved in the process, the court reported or the member of the jury?  On a comparative scale, who under reasonable time constraints would be more prepared to render a judgment in the matter, the multi-tasking court reporter or the jury member who is focused exclusively on finding and highlighting relevant facts?

It has always been my completely unsubstantiated and intuitive opinion that more of your brain is engaged if you have to actually write down any thought in your own handwriting.  You hear something that sounds particularly germane in the middle of an avalanche of words; you decide that it seems relevant and then you write it down using even more of your brain.  Because that operation takes some time and instant editing in the context of your own words and personal judgment, you learn to focus solely on what is relevant.  You have, in effect, edited the lecture in real and fleeting time into its most important components.  That takes concentration, intense, focused thought and a fair amount of kinetic effort as you put your personal stamp on it in the form of your own handwriting.  To do all of that requires the use of a lot of your brain and as you use those parts, you are also embedding the material into that brain probably in several places.

In these days of easy research when it comes to resolving issues, I looked for some learned opinions and I found many.  All of them were pretty convinced by actual empirical evidence that there is much to be said for taking notes in cursive and not on a laptop.  Here’s a sampling.

Elahe Izadi, reporting for the Washington Post, cited excerpts from a piece in Psychological Science, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard”, which noted that while students taking notes on a laptop did about as well as students using pen and paper when it came to factual recall, students who used a pen or pencil did substantially better with conceptual questions.  That conclusion was confirmed by another study at Princeton and UCLA.  In yet another follow-up study that focused on the durability of the kinds of note taking, after a week passed since the class, students were asked to review their notes.  The students who physically wrote down their notes did far better than those who reviewed their laptop notes.

In a May, 2014 article published by Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic, the piece began with a comment by a T.A. (Teaching Assistant) in a Psych 101 class at Princeton who felt because of her role she needed to take good notes of the proceedings.  Normally, she used a laptop but she had forgotten to bring it so she reverted to pen and paper.  She later reported, “I felt like I had gotten so much more out of the lecture that day”.

Meyer went on to report the results of a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer that found “…people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes rather than typed ones.”  The researchers concluded that typed notes tended to write things verbatim with no judgmental processing of any kind during the act of typing.  They transcribed more words but less understanding.  Even when the lap-toppers were warned not to take notes verbatim, the pen-and-pencil students still outperformed them.  The study went on to show that under almost every condition and circumstance the pen-and-pencil crowd outperformed the lap-toppers.

Across the board, researchers came to the same conclusion…writing in the absence of judgment and thought produces words not meaning.  Henry Drummond would be among those not surprised by this outcome. There is usually a price to be paid with every “advance”.

In retrospect, and in the absence of any known research, literature and for a while, technology, intuitively I have been employing this approach for decades.  In my years of working with thousands of angst-ridden parents at public workshops about ways to chart a safe passage through the dangerous waters of college funding, parents would say, “Do you have a handout?”  “Is it OK to take pictures of the Power Point Slides?”  The answer to both was a simple, “No”.  The predictable follow up question was, “Why?”  My answer was again simple…”Because I want you to pay attention and take notes.”  Instantly the attendees were transformed from an observer to a participant.  They became an active player in an important chapter of their own story.  That strategy has worked for years; it always works!

The evidence is clear so consider yourself amply warned.  Leave the laptop at home or in your dorm room.  Sharpen your pencil or buy a comfortable pen.  Listen for content and relevancy and jot it down.  At the end of the day you will have a skillfully edited version of what was said transformed into your own words that reflect your unique style and judgment.  In all likelihood, you won’t have to study as much because you probably know the material.  After all, you have already thought about it and written it down based upon the outcome of that thought process.  In addition, you won’t have to waste precious time deciphering irrelevant verbiage courtesy of HP or Apple.

Finally, there is another pedagogical message here.  If there is any substance to the research and reason would suggest there surely is, maybe it would be a good idea to revisit the importance of penmanship and cursive writing in elementary school so that when students reach the age where note taking becomes important they will have a choice between the proven best way to take notes rather than to become a victim of technology that may be only an illusion of a better way.  It may just be another mindless ” advance” cooked up by vendors of laptops and educators who have failed to do their homework relating to the marriage of technology and actual learning.  Technology in the classroom is not always a panacea.  There is growing evidence that in some cases it is at best merely a trendy, costly placebo.

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