A recent New York Times article profiled the work of Martin Lotze, a researcher at the University of Griefswald in Germany. He discovered through a functional magnetic resonance imaging study (fMRI) that different regions of the brain may become active for novice writers and expert writers when faced with the same task. The study may be of interest for us and our students.
Open-note quizzes may seem like a practice too juvenile for university students, but consider how the open-note quiz facilitates student learning practices that faculty are fond of:
stronger listening skills
student elaboration when writing/encoding—which can facilitate future retrieval
student retrieval of a memory that involves multiple “paved roads” through the brain (the “paved road” of hand to paper, of visual-perception processes, of letter and symbol formation and arrangement on the page)
stronger note-taking (without good notes, the student doesn’t do well on the open-notes quiz)
Example of Open-Notes Quizzes Syllabus Statement (feel free to copy or modify):
Why We Will Have Open Notes Quizzes:
I want to know that you’re learning what we go over in class, and one of the best ones to encourage this is for me to use open notes quizzes. This does a number of things. It helps you become a stronger listener, because the quality of your notes determines how well you will do later on the quizzes or tests. It also encourages you to learn the material better when you first hear it, because you usually write in your own words what you are hearing.
67 students participated in the research study, and students were asked to use their typical note-taking method (laptop or longhand) while watching a video. Although students who typed their notes on the computer were able to recall facts equally well (no statistical difference found), their performance on conceptual-application questions was significantly worse (M = -0.156).
A 2012 study by Aguilar-Roca, Williams, and O’Dowd of 400 students found a correlation between exam performance and note taking preference—those who took notes by paper scored significantly higher than those who took notes on a laptop (p < 0.01, paired t-test). And Kraushaar and Novak, in 2010, discovered that students with laptops engaged in substantial multitasking behavior about 42% of the time (defined as surfing, entertainment, email, instant messaging, and updating computer software).
So what does this mean for us as faculty? Does this suggest we ban laptops overnight in our classes? Not necessarily.
Teasing out these questions (and potential solutions) is best addressed in the department meeting, committee, or faculty task force. But in the meantime, there are steps you can take to begin shaping the conversation with your own students.
Explain to your students, in the context of empathy and care, that you want to see them succeed in every way, and that these studies have you thinking differently. Tell them that isn’t that you want to take their laptop away; it’s that others who have taken this subject seriously enough to study it, have determined that it has a real impact. They are here to learn, after all.
Still, if you’re unsure how they will respond to a sudden change in classroom policy, poll them anonymously. Gauge their reluctance, and tell them you’re thinking about a change (sleep on it).
If and when you are ready to be more intentional about your students taking notes by hand, consider modeling the way. It is entirely possible that your students have never taken notes by hand, or received any feedback whatsoever about the quality of the notes they write. Show them an example of what good notes and poor notes look like
Or you might simply try it with them in a low stakes manner —lecture about a topic for 5 minutes, then ask them to share out loud what they wrote. If they are reluctant, take them up, then read a random few. Have a conversation (non-judgmental, of course) about the differences in how people process what they hear. Ask them whether you talk too fast or too slow. The conversation could be quite fruitful.
If you are in the planning phases for next term’s courses, consider using a syllabus statement, a short paragraph that explains the importance of note-taking. Given that most faculty go over their syllabus that first week, this is a logical place to include it. We’ve created an example of one below, and it’s plug-in ready (just copy and paste).
Indent the text below 1 inch and include a cursor pointer directly to the left of it.
Example of Syllabus Statement (feel free to copy or modify):
Recommendations for Note-Taking:
Those who study how people learn recently discovered something very interesting. Students who take notes by hand perform better on exams than students who take notes on their laptop (on concept-based questions). Students who use laptops to write down exactly what they hear or see can find themselves unprepared for an exam. Why? Because at the time the material was shared, their brains were not processing and storing what they learned. They merely copied what they heard. So try these things:
Close your laptop during lecture or any other material that is going to be on your exam. Write down, on paper, what is being said.
During class, as I’m speaking, write down, in your own words, what I’m saying. Sometimes this will be easy; sometimes this will be hard. When it’s hard, write down the words I’m using and as soon as class is over (or within an hour or two), rewrite it in your own words.
If I give you a PowerPoint handout, with the slides on it and areas in the margins to write, write something in the margins as I go. Elaborate in your own words, if you can. You might also ask questions you can later return to. Elaborating really does help you store (and later retrieve) the material.
Let me know if you’d like me to slow down.
Aguilar-Roca, N. M., Williams, A. E., & O’Dowd, D. K. (2012). The impact of laptop-free zones on student performance and attitudes in large lectures. Computers & Education, 59(4), 1300-1308.
Kraushaar, J. M., & Novak, D. C. (2010). Examining the affects of student multitasking with laptops during the lecture. Journal of Information Systems Education, 21(2), 241.
Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), 1159-1168.
Faculty questions about student engagement are common across institutions and higher education. Educational researchers, cognitive scientists, and psychologists continue to learn new things about cognition, learning, and motivation, and some of those best resources and strategies can be found here.