So I’ve started working as a course assistant. For those of you not in the know, I’m looking to leverage my mathematics experience to transition into a career teaching high school math. And now, in addition to taking classes to learn how to be a teacher, I’m also assisting for a course. The course in question is about teaching arithmetic.
My primary responsibility is grading the homework, but I also participate some during class time. So while I’m sitting in the classes, I notice that every time the professor asks a question of the class, many of the students look up from their notebooks and pause. I can’t help but see that as shifting gears from carefully writing what they’re being taught to thinking about the material so they can address the question. After all, it’s what would be going on in my mind had I been taking notes.
That need to shift gears is one reason I don’t like taking notes. You see, I learned in 9th grade that the only thing I learn when I take notes in class is how to take notes in class.
About halfway through the year, our history teacher was replaced with a long-term substitute. His method of teaching consisted of spending the entire class time writing on the board so that we could spend our entire class time writing it all down. He told us that part of our grade depended on our notebooks. Well, I didn’t give it much weight. I spent the first couple of weeks in class reading and thinking about what he was writing. And I wrote none of it down.
Guess what happened.
First, I was able to absorb the material easily ’cause focussing on it was all I did – there were no distractions. Second, when it came time to give us our grades for the first marking period with him, I got an ‘F’. He based my entire grade on my lack of a notebook.
So I was forced to take notes. And forced to stop understanding the material during class time because my mind just couldn’t spare the effort to think about the concepts/history/facts while also carefully recording it all.
Then, come graduation time, there was a third consequence. Turns out that in my small high school class of 153 students, the students with the two best grade averages were precisely tied, and I was one of them. The powers that be decided that because of my one ‘F’, I would be salutatorian.
Now one could argue that the lesson to take from that experience is the importance of taking notes, but the lesson I took from it was different. The lesson I learned is that other people can’t know what’s best for you, and what’s best for you may even be considered wrong/bad by the rest of society.
Now, back to the subject of this post.
So I’ve been sitting in class for three weeks now, and every time I see the students raise their heads and shift gears, my heart drops a little in sympathy for the professor. He’s not at all like my 9th grade history sub. He engages the class, raises interesting issues, and generally tries to get them all to, in the words of another math professor I’ve worked with, “think deeply of simply things”, though he doesn’t put it that way. And yet, many of them are spending their class time dutifully recording his wisdom, apparently for future reference so they can then understand the material at their leisure.
Which brings me to the second reason I don’t like taking notes.
I can’t perfectly record the intent of any instructor – for two reasons. First, I make mistakes. Second, so does every instructor. So when I spend my class time writing notes, what is on paper will have errors in it. And when I finally get around to looking at it, I’ll most certainly not have the instructor around to help at catching those mistakes.
How do I learn the course material from error filled notes? Very poorly.
This was demonstrated very effectively when I was in grad school studying number theory. Some of the professors regularly used class time to present material that augmented (read: wasn’t in) the texts used. I had to take notes then because the subjects were hard enough that I couldn’t absorb all of the information during class. But when I reviewed my notes, they weren’t any easier to understand – the only thing I gained by having the notes was time, if I had enough to spare, that is.
So now that I’m taking classes again, I’m deliberately, consciously, not taking notes. If I find I can’t completely absorb some idea, I make sure to at least remember enough of it so that I can later look it up on Wikipedia (or the web in general, which didn’t yet exist when last I was a student).
After all, what good is taking a class if I don’t use the class time itself to actively interact with the instructor, when everything I might want to learn can be found these days on the web?