Published: June 10, 2014

Watch Dr. Miriam Kingsberg's video podcast about how she incorporated shared notes into her lecture course, as inspired through her experience in the 2014 ASSETT Teaching with Technology Seminar.

This semester (Spring 2014), I taught a large (approximately 90 students) introductory survey of Japanese history (HIST 1708).  The students’ collective performance on the midterm, in the seventh week of the semester, was disappointing.  Although I gave them sample essay and short-answer questions to prepare in advance, it appeared that few students had studied effectively.  To give them an opportunity to think through what might have caused a low grade, and to help me structure the second half of the course more effectively, I offered students the opportunity to fill out a mid-semester evaluation.  (Unfortunately, due to the timing of the exam and other factors, this exercise took place on the Thursday before spring break, when many students were absent.)

From the evaluation, I gained a clear sense that many of the students were not taking notes effectively during class. Like most large history surveys, my course is lecture-based, with much of the tested material conveyed and explained during meetings.  I generally put some information on PowerPoint slides and make these presentations available after class on Desire2Learn, but do not share my own lecture outlines, in the expectation that students will learn more by generating their own notes.  Whereas I liked the idea of holding them responsible for their own education (and encouraging attendance), I noticed that many students, including several who seemed enthusiastic about the subject and often asked good questions, did not routinely take notes in class.  The midterm evaluation suggested that they would benefit from some guidance in how to take useful notes and in having these notes available for studying.

In conversation with ASSETT, I devised an intervention to this effect with the following aims:

1)   modeling the construction of useful lecture notes

2)   making available comprehensive notes for the material covered in class

3)   encouraging collaboration among students in a large course

I put the intervention into action on Apr. 10 (unfortunately close to the end of the semester).  I selected a student who had performed strongly on all class work to date and had come to office hours several times to discuss material she had missed due to absence, or had not understood adequately during lecture.  I emailed her to ask if she would be willing to take notes in front of the class during lecture.  Luckily, my classroom (EDUC 220) is equipped with two screens.  Because it has only one projector, I requested a second one from OIT.  The student worker came on time and with all of the requisite equipment, and even stayed until I was fully confident that everything was functioning correctly.

The lecture normally runs the full course period of 75 minutes, but, to minimize the burden on the note-taker, I lectured for only one hour (devoting the remainder of course time to preparing the students for their upcoming paper assignment).  I looked over the notes briefly before posting them online.  The student chosen for the exercise did a great job—they were extremely comprehensive and easy to follow, and had the added benefit of filling me with confidence that my lectures were accessible to the class..

After the session that day, I asked my TA if she had noticed any impact on the attention level in the class (she generally sat at the back of the room and was vigilant in policing technological distractedness).  We agreed that the students seemed no more or less engaged than usual.  I had feared that the second screen might distract me as I lectured, but I soon became immersed in the material and forgot all about it.  The only drawback was the reduced amount of blackboard space.  I am accustomed to writing down concepts for the students as I lecture, and with two screens obscuring most of the blackboard, I had to erase constantly.

In class the following week, I circulated an anonymous and confidential paper survey to learn the class’s reaction to the exercise.  (I devised the survey after the exercise took place, when I had a good sense of what kind of feedback might be useful.)  I’ve pasted it here for reference:

Feedback on Note-Taking Exercise

Do you usually take your own notes during class?  Are you satisfied with your note-taking ability?

Did having the notes on the projector change your own note-taking in class?  If so, how?

Did you review the notes after class?

Will you use the notes to prepare for the final exam?

If you were not confident in your note-taking prior to this exercise, did the model give you a better sense of what is important to listen for and write down during lecture?

Would you be willing to take notes on behalf of the class during a future lecture?

Circle as applicable:

·      I found the second projector distracting.

·      I prefer to take my own notes.

·      I like the idea of having notes constructed by my peers available.

·      I like the idea of having notes constructed by my peers available, but I don’t need to see them being written.

·      I find it helpful to watch the notes being written.

·      I am less likely to go to class if notes are available online.

·      I am less likely to pay attention in class if I can rely on someone else’s notes.

·      This exercise was useful in showing me how to construct good notes.

·      I was absent from class on Tuesday.

Are there any ways this exercise could be improved to be more useful to you?

The reaction to the intervention ranged from enthusiastic to neutral.  Of the 57 students who took the survey, 52 were in favor of having the notes available online.  Of the five students who were indifferent, four said that they would likely use the notes to prepare for the final exam.  Only two students admitted that access to someone else’s notes would reduce the likelihood that they would attend class (in all probability, those who did not regularly come to class probably were not present for the survey).  The second projector was not viewed as distracting, but a few of the students had a hard time seeing it from where they were seated.  Almost half of the students said they liked having the notes posted online, but didn’t need to see them being constructed.  A few made interesting suggestions regarding possible improvements to the exercise (I may take these into account in future semesters.)  Only 17 said they might or would definitely be willing to take notes for the class.  Excuses included poor handwriting, the lack of a laptop, fear of being distracted, poor grammar and spelling, and fear.  Comments included numerous variations of the following:

“It helped me get some of the facts/details I may have missed otherwise.”

“If I missed something I was able to look at the notes to catch up.”

“It helped me organize my thoughts better.”

Based on student responses, the feedback from my TA, and my own impressions, I decided to continue modeling note-taking during the final two lectures of the semester, and called for volunteers.  Unsurprisingly, no one came forward, so I directly approached two other high-performing students (one was willing, the other as not).  When I taught a similar course during Maymester, I avoided this problem by building credit for notetaking into the structure of the course, requiring each student to take a turn at some point during the semester.  I also had the class seat themselves so that the students who wanted to see the notes being constructed had a good view of the projector.

In addition to feedback, I used the final exam to determine the effectiveness of the note-taking exercise.  On exams, I normally ask the students to identify and state the significance of four out of five concepts presented during lecture, drawn from a “bank” they are given in advance.  These answers are generally approximately the length of a long paragraph.  I selected one concept from the days for which note-taking was modeled and the results subsequently posted on Desire2Learn, and four others from lectures earlier in the semester.  The students overwhelmingly elected to define the concept for which notes were available, and their definitions were significantly better than those they supplied for the other concepts.

Although I have made some modifications to this exercise for Maymester and will continue to tweak it, I would consider my intervention a success!