Still more on the “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit (or not)” project, in which I go down the tangent of note-taking

I spent most of my Thanksgiving break  back in Iowa, and along the way, I chatted with my side of the family about my faculty research fellowship project, “Investigating Classroom Technology Bans Through the Lens of Writing Studies,” aka “Classroom Tech Bans are Bullshit.” It’s always interesting talking to my non-academic family-types about academic things like this.

“So, you’re on sabbatical right now?” Not exactly. I’m not teaching so I can spend more time on research, but I’m still expected to go to meetings and things like that. Though honestly, I’ve skipped some of that stuff too, and it’s generally okay.

“Is there some kind of expectation for what you are supposed to be researching? What happens if you don’t do it?” Well, it is a competitive process for getting these fellowships in the first place, and there’s of course an expectation that I’ll do what I proposed. And I have done that, more or less, and I will have to write a report about that soon. But the implications (consequences?) of not doing all of what I originally proposed are vague at best.

“So, you’re not really working right now?” No no no, that’s not true. I’m working quite a bit, actually. But I’m doing this work because I want to, though I’m doing this work mostly at home and often in pajamas and I have an extremely flexible schedule right now (which is why we’re going to Morocco in a few days, but that’s another story for later), so I can understand why you might ask that.

“Being a professor is kind of a weird job, isn’t it?” Yes, yes it is.

Anyway, since I last blogged about this project back in September, I’ve been a bit distracted by department politics (don’t ask) and by prepping for teaching in the Winter term, which for me involves some new twists on old courses and also a completely new prep. But the research continues.

Back in October, I put together and conducted a survey for students and faculty about their attitudes/beliefs on the use of laptops and cell phones in classes. Taking the advice I often give my grad students in situations like this, I did not reinvent the wheel and instead based this survey on similar work by Elena Neiterman and Christine Zaza who are both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and who both (I think) work in that school’s Public Health program. They published two articles right up my alley for this project: “A Mixed Blessing? Students’ and Instructors’ Perspectives about Off-Task Technology Use in the Academic Classroom” and “Does Size Matter? Instructors’ and Students’ Perceptions of Students’ Use of Technology in the Classroom.” I emailed to ask if they would be willing to share their survey questions and they generously agreed, so thanks again!

I’ll be sorting through and presenting about the results of this at the CCCCs this year and hopefully in an article (or articles) eventually. But basically, I asked for participants on social media, the WPA-L mailing list (had to briefly rejoin that!), and at EMU. I ended up with 168 respondents, 57% students and 43% instructors, most of whom aren’t at EMU. The results are in the ballpark/consistent with Neiterman and Zaza (based just on percentages– I have no idea if there’s a way to legitimately claim any kind of statistically significant comparison), though I think it’s fair to say both students and instructors in my survey are more tolerant and even embracing of laptops and cellphones in the classroom. I think that’s both because these are all smaller classes (Neiterman and Zaza found that size does indeed matter and devices are more accepted in smaller classes), and also because they’re writing classes. Besides the fact that writing classes tend to be activity-heavy and lecture-light (and laptops and cell phones are important tools for writing), I think our field is a lot more accepting of these technologies and frankly a lot more progressive in its pedagogy: not “sage on the stage” but “guide on the side,” the student-centered classroom, that sort of thing. I also was able to recruit a lot of potential interviewee subjects from this survey, though I think I’m going to hold off on putting together that part of the project for the new year.

And I’ve been thinking again about note-taking, though not so much as it relates to technology. As I’ve mentioned here before, there are two basic reasons in the scholarship for banning or limiting the use of devices– particularly laptops– in college classrooms, particularly lecture halls. One reason is about the problems of distraction and multitasking, and I do think there is some legitimacy to that. The other reason (as discussed in the widely cited Mueller and Oppenheimer study) is that it’s better to take notes by longhand than by a laptop.  I think that’s complete bullshit, so I kind of set that aside.

But now I’m starting rethink/reconsider the significance of note-taking again because of the presidential impeachment hearings. Those hearings were a series of poised, intelligent, and dedicated diplomats and career federal professionals explaining how Trump essentially tried to blackmail the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden. One of the key things that made these people so credible was their continued reference to taking detailed notes where they witnessed this impeachable behavior. In contrast, EU ambassador Gordon “The Problem” Sondland seemed oddly proud that he’s never been a note-taker. As a result, a lot of Sondland’s testimony included him saying stuff like “I don’t remember the details because I don’t take notes, but if it was in that person’s notes, I have no reason to doubt it.” I thought this detail (and other things about his testimony) made Sondland look simultaneously like an extremely credible witness to events and also like a complete boob.

Anyway, this made me wonder: exactly is the definition of “good note-taking?” How do we know someone takes good (or bad) notes, and what’s the protocol for teaching/training people to take good notes?

The taking notes by hand versus on a laptop claim is shaky and (IMO) quite effectively refuted by the Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, and Katherine A. Rawson study, “How Much Mightier Is the Pen Than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014).” But while that study does poke at the concept of note-taking a bit (for example, they have one group of participants not take notes at all and just closely pay attention to the TED talk lecture), everything else I’ve read seems to just take note-taking as a given. There’s broad consensus in the psych/education scholarship that taking notes is an effective way to recall information later on, be it for a test or testimony before Congress, and there also seems to be consensus that trying to write everything down is a bad note-taking strategy. But I have yet to read anything about a method or criteria for evaluating the quality of notes, nor have I read anything about a pedagogy or a protocol for teaching people how to take good notes.

I find that odd. I mean, if the basic claim that Mueller and Oppenheimer (and similar studies) are trying to make is that students take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, and if the basic claim that Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson (and similar studies) are tying to make is students don’t take “better notes” by hand than by laptop, shouldn’t there be at least some minimal definition of “better notes?” Without that definition, can we really say that study participants who scored higher on the test measuring success did so because they took “better notes” rather than some other factor (e.g., they were smarter, they paid better attention, they had more knowledge about the subject of the lecture before the test, etc., etc.)?

I posted about this on Facebook and tagged a few friends I have who work for the federal government, asking if there was any particular official protocol or procedure for taking notes; the answers I got back were kind of vague. On the way back home at one point, Annette and I got to talking about how we were taught to take notes. I don’t remember any sort of instruction in school, though Annette said she remembered a teacher who actually collected and I guess graded student notes. There are of course some resources out there– here’s what looks like a helpful collection of links and ideas from the blog Cult of Pedagogy— but most of these strategies seem more geared for a tutoring or learning center setting. Plus a pedagogy for teaching note taking strategies is not the same thing as research, and it certainly is not the same thing as a method for measuring the effectiveness of notes.

But clearly, I digress.

So my plan for what’s next is to do even more reading (I’m working my way back through the works cited of a couple of the key articles I’ve been working with so far), some sifting through/writing about the results, and eventually some interviews, probably via email. And maybe I’ll take up as a related project more on this question of note-taking methods. But first, there’s Morocco and next semester.

It’s been an interesting research fellowship semester for me. I’ve been quite fortunate in that in the last five years I’ve had two research fellowships and a one semester sabbatical. Those previous releases from teaching involved the specific project of my book about MOOCs, More Than A Moment (on sale now!), and thus had very specific goals/outcomes. My sabbatical was mostly about conducting interviews and securing a book contract; my last FRF was all about finishing the book.

In contrast, this project/semester was much less guided, a lot more “wondering” (I think blog posts like this one demonstrate that). It’s been a surprisingly useful time for me as a scholar, especially at a time in my career and following the intensity of getting the MOOC book done where I was feeling pretty “done” with scholarship. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to EMU for the opportunity, and I hope these keep funding these fellowships, too.

 

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