on having the good fortune to be OLD

This New York Times article on the lecture and note taking has been doing the rounds the last couple of days. It made me remember how much I enjoy a good lecture – and how glad I am that I was at university before laptops and tablets in the classroom became common. Somewhere, in a box, I have piles of notebooks of lecture notes and notes on books, which I’ve kept in case I ever want to refer back. I probably never will – and at this distance it’s debatable if I’d find the thing I was looking for – but I’m going to keep them a while yet.

Note-taking is important partly for the record it creates, but let’s be honest. Students forget most of the facts we teach them not long after the final exam, if not sooner. The real power of good notes lies in how they shape the mind… She told me how learning to take attentive, analytical notes helped her succeed in debates with her classmates. “Debate is really all about note-taking, dissecting your opponent’s idea, reducing it into a single sentence. There’s something about the brevity of notes, putting an idea into a smaller space, that allows you psychologically to overcome that idea.”

Technology can be a saboteur. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

I’ve been trying to get back into note taking on paper of late, rather than ‘saving time’ by going straight to digital. The digital note taking is so tempting, especially when you’re making notes to share with other people, which is something I do a lot.  And sure it saves me time in letting other people know what was discussed in a lecture, or seminar, or at an event. But it doesn’t actually save me time.

My Evernote notebooks may be full of notes, but they don’t actually function as an extension of my brain, and I know this because I don’t remember the stuff that is in them, not in the way I used to remember the stuff that was in my notebooks at university, or the stuff I scribble in my notebook-journal-commonplace book today.

The interesting thing to me though is that this article doesn’t really explain why this happens. If you look at my notes in my computer they don’t look all that different from my notes in my notebook. They’re just a bit more legible to someone else’s eye. And it’s not like I don’t synthesise as I go, digitally, either. I type fast, but not fast enough to get verbatim. I also shut down all the background stuff on my laptop in a lecture (baiiii, twitter).

It’s annoying, because clearly I’m going to have to make the time to handwrite, then type up, if I want to truly absorb the stuff I’m hearing and reading. Has anyone done the research on how mental absorption works if you handwrite your notes into an app on a tablet with a stylus?


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