Lecture / Seminar

Why Mindful Lecture Notes Beat Writing Everything Down

A recent study found that a pen and pad is better for taking lecture notes than typing them on a laptop.

This may say more about the way we use tools for making notes. Fast typing can cause you to take notes word for word, even when you’ve been told not to. Change could be minimal, since the ability to take near-verbatim notes is there.

How do you take notes in a lecture?

Fear of missing out is one possible issue. As with social networks and instant message notifications, the fight to keep up can drive us mad. With a laptop and touch-typing skills, you can transcribe all the words. You know, just in case…

This ‘just in case’ method of writing everything down stops you from engaging with the content, even though you’re recording it all. While some students can revisit the content and engage with it effectively afterwards, many others don’t work this way. Either way, you set yourself up to spend more time on the lecture content than you need.

I see notes differently. I don’t bother with notes at all sometimes, although I begin with the expectation that I’ll write something down. Some of my lecture notes are two or three lines of writing and nothing else. I take down what I feel I need and nothing more.

At times, the notes have flowed and I’ve had a lot to get through. Unfamiliar topics can do that. But it’s still not the same as typing up as many words as I can, with the possibility that I’ll need it all. No matter how many notes I end up writing, the process is mindful. I engage with the content and act accordingly. Don’t just hear the words, hear concepts and ideas and questions and arguments.

After a lecture, a lot of information can be missing from the page, but not from my thoughts. Alternatively, I know that the rest of the information is elsewhere and in a format that I will fully engage with anyway.

In a lecture, the idea is to mindfully consider your notes and carefully listen to the speaker. By typing almost everything out, you’re noting down but not engaging with the information. When you come to the notes later, you read them almost as if they’re in book form…a book you’re coming to for the first time.

You need to work more deeply with the content. Repetition doesn’t help. It’s the same reason why advice to keep reading your notes until you know them back to front is not that helpful in boosting your understanding.

When your lecturer talks about something you aren’t clear about, write down key points and any questions you have. Treat the lecture as an information source that you’re selecting from, rather than a wall of noise that you need to grab as much as possible from.

That one difference in attitude should give you the ability to record your notes in whatever way you like. Even if you keep typing instead of handwriting, the secret is to extract what’s useful to you. You can only do that when you are mindful of the content.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore your notes. Write a brief summary outlining what you found out and explored in the lecture. No more than a few sentences. With a summary and your original notes, return to them in a week and then in a month.

  • Find out more about the things you’re still unsure about;
  • shorten notes and simplify where possible into key points as you become more familiar with them;
  • add context and additional findings where necessary;
  • remind yourself that the purpose of your notes is to strengthen your ability ongoing, with the ultimate aim to use them as a springboard to jump from when considering coursework and revising for exams.

When you no longer need the notes or when they have taken on a new identity, congratulations. You don’t need notes forever. You outgrow them. They get replaced by new notes. Eventually, they get replaced by the essays and exams that you’re proud of.

Contact Hours Should Be About Quality As Well As Quantity

How much importance should contact hours be given? What do these hours mean to each student? Hours vary between subjects and also between institutions. Do we search for a sweet spot, try for as many hours as possible, or look beyond contact time completely?

Nicola Dandrige, CEO of Universities UK, says that contact hours have changed over time and, as a result, represent too narrow a focus in isolation:

“What we are hearing is the importance of teaching and learning and universities are responding to that in more imaginative ways than just contact hours.” [Source]

From this viewpoint, hours will vary considerably as institutions adopt different approaches to their teaching methods.

But students have become accustomed to viewing contact hours as a good way of working out value for money. A QAA report on student expectations found that contact time was considered the most important, if not the only, cost relating to tuition fees.

HEPI found that “those with least contact were least satisfied“, while NUS research found that some students look to contact hours as representing value for money. One student argued:

“If I am only in for three hours a week, why should I pay so much money? You want to tbe at uni and interacting with lecturers.”

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks - CC BY 2.0)

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks – CC BY 2.0)

Comparisons between students is easy. Even when there is good reason for a contrast in contact time between students, an imbalance does not make for a happy reaction. Take one such reply in the 2013 Student Academic Survey by Which? and HEPI:

“I’m a third year history student and only get three hours a week contact time. And yet I pay the same price as someone who has 12 hours per week.”

Nevertheless, the Which? report states that “contact hours have risen by just 20 minutes per week since 2006″. And while student expectations are understandably on the up, needs and expectations are two very different things.

The 2012 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey found:

“…for those with fewer than 10 hours of lectures a week, 21% felt the debt was too high while the figure was just 10% for those who spent over 21 hours in lectures.”

But is it all about spending longer in lectures?

I have previously argued that not all contact hours are equal and that the term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation. It might be easy to break down the number of hours you spend each week into a monetary value, but it counts for nothing if the contact isn’t helpful.

Thankfully, students do appear to seek quality contact far more than lengthier contact. The number of hours may or may not be enough, but the most important factor on the minds of students has little to do with time. Take this year’s HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey:

“…two thirds of contact experienced by students was in class sizes of 16 students or more. There is a striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases.”

The report goes on to say that while a third of students wished for more contact hours, “…the findings here suggest that increasing the quality of contact (which is more probable in smaller classes) is likely to be more effective in improving the student learning experience than simply increasing contact hours”.

QAA reported similar findings:

“…we found [students] wanted more ‘close support’, through contact time in small seminars and tutorials, and definitely not more lecture hours.”

The Student Room asked students how much 1 to 1 time they expected to have with a tutor each week. More than half of the prospective students surveyed expected between one and five hours. The reality is, on average, more like half an hour.

But it seems that the more personal time given to students, the better. Gibbs reported:

“What seems to matter is the nature of the class contact. ‘Close contact’ that involves at least some interaction between teachers and students on a personal basis is associated with greater educational gains (Pascarella, 1980) independently of the total number of class contact hours (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005).”

So the number of hours given to contact are important, but only when also assessing the relative value to learning.

And as one HE friend put it to me this week, some students want to be taught via lectures and increased seminar allocation, while others prefer to be left in a room with wi-fi so they can research and learn for themselves. Needs are not all the same. A big increase in contact time for a student who identifies strongly with independent learning could work against them.

Rather than compare hours between institutions and courses, how about comparing the number of hours for the same course at the same institution over different years?

If there is a marked change in contact hours over those years, what other changes have been made as a consequence? Is there more 1 to 1 time given, for instance? If so, the reduced time may still provide equal or greater value. However, if little change has been made, the consequences of shorter contact time may be negative.

An hour of personal engagement with a tutor can be worth many hours of listening to the same lecture as the other hundred people in a room. Don’t just look at how many hours you get each week, but look at what’s happening within those hours. You’ll get much better peace of mind in the process.

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby - CC BY 2.0)

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby – CC BY 2.0)

Why Lectures Aren’t Dead & How to Deal With Difficult Lectures

Not all lecturers are the same:

“To excel as a lecturer, it is necessary to find delight as a lecturer. In part, this means ferreting out what is most intriguing about the topic under discussion. It also means attending carefully to learners and seeking and sharing their enthusiasm. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other. One of the greatest pleasures of lecturing occurs when learners pose insightful questions that the lecturer did not — perhaps even could not — foresee.” – Richard Gunderman, Is the Lecture Dead?

What makes a lecture work for you? Is it like a dance? What special quality makes your favourite lecturer top of your list?

I saw one person lecture a few times and it was clear how excited they were about the subject. Unfortunately, the excitement was inward and the speaking was almost monotone. The content didn’t matter, the lecturer simply wasn’t giving the audience a way in. The most interested of lecturers aren’t always the most interesting.

Photo by dalbera

Photo by dalbera

A lecturer must find what enthuses the audience and provide an angle they can follow. With a compelling story told well, you have a good start.

Lectures aren’t dead. They’re not dying. But we are growing used to them. They are everywhere, in so many guises. Lectures are offline, online, long, short, bite-sized, basic, advanced, MOOC-based, general, specific… Lectures are talks to an audience. That covers a lot of ground.

New methods of learning and discovering won’t kill off what’s gone before. I’m tired of such a binary, either/or debate. Communication matters, no matter what the angle. Get it right and the communication moves on. The learning continues.

Get stuck and people switch off. There’s no magic answer here.

The lecture is not at fault itself, especially since the term ‘lecture’ is vague. It might be the wrong setting in some cases and there may be better ways to express some concepts. But none of this suggests the end of lectures altogether. That wouldn’t make sense. The point is to have a range of learning resources.

Think of a textbook. When you find the core reading tough to grasp, you can look elsewhere. A similar textbook that’s not on your reading list may have similar information, but be several times easier for you to understand.

I’ve faced that loads of times. A poor book (for me) was replaced by a better book. Imagine if, instead, I got annoyed at books and vowed never to read one again. That would be meaningless.

Once I got a grip of major concepts through a book that spoke to me, I’d return to the core text with more confidence. Sometimes, on the luckiest occasions, I was able to ignore the main text completely.

What has all this got to do with lectures? Well, a good lecture is a good lecture. It’s the bad ones you need to deal with.

When a lecture hasn’t worked out for you, try these things:

  • Go over the slides and see if you can recover from those alone;
  • Look for similar lectures online. Open Culture is a good starting place with Free Online Courses and Free Online Certificate MOOCs listed;
  • Use your core textbooks to read up on terms you didn’t grasp at first;
  • When you’re REALLY stuck by one or two concepts, look them up on Simple Wikipedia;
  • Speak with your classmates, the lecturer, and online forums. Basically, get a conversation going. It’ll help you see things from other people’s perspectives and it should help your confidence when talking about difficult content.

How do you deal with difficult lectures?

Of course, it’s much better when the lecture and lecturer gel with you. My favourite lecturer at uni did the dance described in the quotation at the top of this post. The energy was there, the content was clear, and much of the audience felt involved. I learned a lot about good presentation at the same time.

Not bad for a simple lecture.

Accept What You Don’t Know As Quickly As Possible

James Moos, a Computer Forensics student at the University of Glamorgan, has a simple and effective tip for when you’re making notes in lectures:

“If there’s a word or phrase you don’t understand in the lecture, write it down and look it up when you get home, and add it to your notes. It reduces that panicky feeling of not understanding anything!”

Yup. It’s that simple.

Not everything is obvious straight away (photo by Doug88888)

Not everything is obvious straight away (photo by Doug88888)

When you hear a word or a concept that makes no sense, you can do one of two things:

  1. You stop what you’re doing and feel confused. In the end, you miss more of the lecture;
    OR
  2. You happily note down what you don’t understand to look up later at your own convenience.

Eliminate the panic and stay focused. Do number 2!

The next time you don’t get something, acknowledge it and deal with it later. It’s the best way to stop your mind from wandering and to keep your confidence intact.