Students? Or Scriveners?

Monday, June 09, 2014

Joseph Stromberg of Vox writes about research on how the use of laptop computers to take lecture notes affects later recall. Even when students using laptops were not engaged in other activities during lectures, they fared more poorly on tests than those who took notes by hand. Interestingly, this discrepancy was in the realm of the recall of concepts from the lecture: The two groups of students remembered factual information about equally well.

Intriguing to me is why the researchers think this is the case:

Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, the psychologists who conducted the new research, believe it's because students on laptops usually just mindlessly type everything a professor says. Those taking notes by hand, though, have to actively listen and decide what's important -- because they generally can't write fast enough to get everything down -- which ultimately helps them learn. [bold added]
This reminds me a little of Objectivist thinking about concept-formation:
The process of concept-formation does not consist merely of grasping a few simple abstractions, such as "chair," "table," "hot," "cold," and of learning to speak. It consists of a method of using one's consciousness, best designated by the term "conceptualizing." It is not a passive state of registering random impressions. It is an actively sustained process of identifying one's impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context, of grasping relationships, differences, similarities in one's perceptual material and of abstracting them into new concepts, of drawing inferences, of making deductions, of reaching conclusions, of asking new questions and discovering new answers and expanding one's knowledge into an ever-growing sum. The faculty that directs this process, the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason. The process is thinking. [bold added]
Mueller and Oppenheimer's findings and their interpretation make sense to me. It also squares with a recent experience of mine with attempting to use lecture notes taken with a laptop. My hand-written lecture notes from college were always a great resource; not so much were some notes I took on a laptop a couple of years ago when I reviewed a course I took some time earlier: Not having boiled things down to essentials, I found myself throwing my hands up at the useless -- albeit fact-filled -- notes.

I am no Luddite, but I have always rolled my eyes a bit at the various expensive educational programs that seek to put a laptop into the hands of every student. A computer is a tool: It is only as good as its user. I used to object to the premature introduction of students to laptops on the grounds that their minds were unprepared to take advantage of them. Now, I have a new objection: It appears that the misuse of laptops for note-taking (i.e., when the purpose of doing so is to glean conceptual content from a lecture) can actually interfere with education.

-- CAV

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