Being back in school at the age of thirty-six, I have noticed many changes since the old times when I was an undergrad. I overhear a lot of stuff I don’t understand, for instance kids fifteen years younger than me talking about Fetty Wap, which sounds like a Dr. Seuss character if you ask me. Aside from noticing that the majority of students now find it acceptable to wear pajama pants to class, I have also witnessed something perhaps even more troubling: the dawn of the dead when it comes to note-taking. Every day, I observe classrooms full of students robotically copying down every single word they see on the whiteboard. It’s as if they’ve forgotten that there is a human being standing before the class speaking, most likely a human being with a strong and specialized knowledge in his or her field. I can’t help but panic: have we lost our ability to think critically? Have we forgotten that Shakespeare warned us to let “every eye judge for itself and trust no agent?” What happened to that little space called “thinking” in between receiving information and writing it down? Maybe it’s our culture of instant gratification; maybe it’s our willingness to blindly accept information without thinking about it. Either way, we should be wary of creating classrooms full of automatons. Here are some thoughts on breaking the habit of mere copying:
Take a second before you pick up your pencil: That dude standing up at the front of the class knows his stuff. He has a head full of passionate ideas and opinions about the material he is teaching. He has, perhaps, devoted a great deal of his life to studying it. Most likely, he has the information up on the projector because the school has required him to present it visually as well as verbally. When you simply copy it right off the screen, you are missing one of the most valuable parts of the lesson: the professor’s voice, his thoughts, his opinions, his analysis. Yes, I realize that you also need to know the straight-up information for the final exam, but give him a chance to open your mind a little before you become a slide-copying zombie. You’ll be amazed at how much insight you can gain when you take a second.
Ask a question: In that crucial time before you pick up your pencil, don’t be afraid to ask a question. Questions can broaden the material and lead to impactful discussion. Not only that, but your teacher will certainly appreciate your interest, which could lead to a higher grade for you. The question may then dictate a change in or an addition to what you write down in your notebook. Without discussion and questions, class quickly becomes a barren, unengaging wasteland of trivial information and empty notes.
Don’t write verbatim: As mentioned above, the notes you write down may vary from what is actually written on the board or slide. Do not be afraid to “translate” the notes into your own language. You are under no obligation to write using the exact verbiage you see presented. In fact, I would argue that using your own language affords you the opportunity to better comprehend and retain the information.
Process before you possess: It is important to process the information before you possess it. In many ways, we have become a culture of acquisition: we must own everything. But our temptation to immediately “own” the information in a class by methodically copying it into our notes can interfere with meaningful learning. That crucial second you take before you write it down can give you a chance to truly understand the information. This can lead to deeper thinking which can lead to something much more valuable than just a bunch of meaningless notes scribbled in your notebook.
Written by Phil Lane