Notetaking and the Digital Divide
I always see a handful of laptops staring back at me in class. I am, perhaps, more surprised that I still see students handwriting notes at all. When I ask why they still handwrite notes, those who can afford a laptop claim that they have better information retention when they put their mac or pc aside. Now there’s some science to back this up… and it doesn’t just have to do with staying off Facebook during your Urban Sociology class.
Continuing the theme of Sally Raskoff’s post, about how to get the most of your semester, and Janis Prince Inniss’s post on how not to plagiarize, I want to focus on this central yet rarely addressed component of our classroom exchanges.
In general, I often leave students to their own counsel on the matter. If they want to use a laptop, I ask them to move to the side or back of the room so they don’t distract other students. Although the great majority of them dutifully take notes, I know their attention strays when I see someone peeking over another student’s shoulder at their screen. While my lectures on redlining or gentrification may be a little dull, I have confidence they’re more interesting than watching a student taking quality notes!
With a click away, I know some flip between Twitter, Facebook, and their notes. It isn’t just boredom or distracting multitasking that’s a problem, as one professor suspects. Paradoxically, typing copious class notes limits learning.
Using a few smart experiments, a study from two psychologists (Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer) in Psychological Sciencesuggests classroom note typers who transcribe lectures are dramatically less likely to reflect on lecture material. These students typed lots and lots of notes, and all that tapping gives both the teacher and the student a misleading impression that there’s some real learning going on. The research describes this as “mindless transcription.”
When students were given the same amount of time to study, those who took handwritten notes may have recorded less information from lectures, but they outperformed their note- typing classmates. These handwritten note takers understood more facts and grasped the bigger conceptual ideas from lecture. They spend time not just making notes, but also thinking through the content itself.
So, you should take handwritten notes. How? Most students assume their approaches are successful and they don’t need tips by their first year of college. And yet, I strongly encourage my students to use The Cornell Notetaking Method. This is a way to arrange notes in a fashion that organizes writing in the moment, and allows a student to deepen his or her knowledge later on. Each page includes a section for cues and key ideas in a left-hand column, and summary along the bottom of the page. (Look at one way of charting each page, here.) The method encourages students to take the time after class to create keywords and subheadings, and scribble out review and summarization in the allotted spaces.
Mueller and Oppenheimer’s notetaking study is only the latest in the mounting evidence against classroom laptop use. This growing argument is a blow to conventional wisdom about technology and also to those who insist that hardware scan solve our Digital Divide. Many posit this divide exists between those who have technology and those who do not, and those who have the ability to use technology to their educational advancement and those who cannot. A great many laptop (or iPad) programs attempt to address achievement gaps or serve to entice students to enroll in a college or university.
And yet these kinds of programs offer further proof that technology isn’t an easy fix. An influx of hardware without a corresponding social envelope of support creates further gaps in achievement. According to Paul Attewell in the journal Sociology of Education, “The kinds of skills that were holding back the poorer kids in traditional literacy were holding them back in their computer usage. And the kinds of advantages that affluent kids had let them go even further.” More technology widens these gaps and knowing how to use it is crucial. Now we need to know when to use it.
When a college—whether it is an Honors College at a public university or a for-profit, online college—offers a free laptop, think twice! In an odd wrinkle to the Digital Divide literature, it is possible that old-fashioned pen and paper might actually be an advantage.
Photo courtesy of the author