Students or stenographers?

The fear of failure is not an inspiring or effective motivator, or teacher. In schools at all levels, it instead promotes cheating, lock-step thinking and the patented, beyond parody query following anything an instructor might say: Is that going be on the test? Is that going to be on the final?

Which brings us to the latest news regarding the age-old challenge posed by former President George Bush: Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning? Researchers at Princeton University and UCLA wondered about the ever-prevalent practice of college students taking notes in class on laptops. Does it help or hurt retention of the material, compared with taking handwritten notes?

It turns out that with a laptop, the increased speed of note-taking allows students to simply write the lecture verbatim without processing the information. (Pre-computers, some students would use shorthand in order to capture every word. This skill is known as stenography.) The researchers, in three experiments, compared verbatim laptop note-takers with students who took notes with pen and paper, and then added a third group: laptop note-takers told to put the information in their own words.

In the first experiment, the laptop users took more notes, but they often contained the information exactly as presented, known as verbatim overlap. This was shown in the test scores when, despite both groups having similar scores on the factual questions, the pen-and-paper students performed much better on the conceptual questions of the test, Evan Pappas of SeattlePI.com reported.

In the second experiment, the laptop users taking notes in their own words didn’t do much better than the original laptop group. The final experiment showed that students who studied handwritten notes performed better than those who studied from their laptop notes, Pappas reported.

Regardless, students won’t give up their laptops. Pam Mueller, a grad student and author of the research, predicts that a tablet with a stylus will be the best way to go.

Another crazy option is to encourage students to simply listen, and/or take as few notes as possible, and/or to write up the notes after class, from memory. Earlier research has shown that people who doodle during meetings or lectures actually remember more than those who do not. Those critical listening skills help develop critical thinking skills, which help people discern what’s worth writing down.

It’s difficult to convince students to close the laptop and listen. (And question, or debate.) But if they had a chance to experiment, without fearing they’ll fail the class, they would likely find it’s a much more engaging and educational experience.

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