Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicate that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on paper.
This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted while working on their laptops. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. Students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — rather than thinking about the lecture.
On the other hand, students who take notes on paper have to think about what they’re writing down because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who took notes on paper scored higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.
But in addition to this difference, students taking notes on laptops are indeed distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop, like Facebook, email, and chats.
These bad practices disseminate throughout educational institution. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (a result noted in one study). School administrators listen to these student complaints and attempt to address outmoded instructional methods.
To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen. Schools then have to spend millions of dollars on this tech so have to adjunctify the faculty pool, which further degrades instructional quality. The problem is not that adjunct instructors are bad instructors, but that they are badly paid and badly overworked.
As a result, we have a higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say, the last fifteen to twenty years).
The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the study.
Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion about these ideas:
Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck, but this tech is continually evolving. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting as opposed to typing, so this difference may also be related to how our brains and bodies work together. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.
There are always exceptions. Some students need the support provided by electronic devices when note taking. Let’s just be careful not to define the rule by its exceptions.
We all have to use what works best for us, but it’s also smart to pay attention to some of the latest research, which indicates that reading print books rather than electronic books is better for us in several ways:
Print books lead to increased comprehension. The tactile experience of reading a printed book actually matters. Check out the research.
Related to the above, we’re more likely to read every line of printed material. When we read e-books, we tend to read the first line and then just the words near the beginning of the line after that.
We lose the ability to engage in linear reading if we don’t do it often.
Reading printed material for about an hour before bedtime helps us sleep. Reading ebooks keeps us awake.
I read both e-books and print books, and I’m grateful for my e-readers (really, the apps on my iPad) when I’m traveling. It’s easier to carry 1000 books on one iPad than it is to carry five in a backpack. I relied a great deal on an app called iAnnotate while I was reading for my last published scholarship, the introduction and chapter 1 of Reading as Democracy in Crisis. I can’t tell you how useful the app was to me: it allowed me to highlight, underline, and annotate dozens of .pdf files and then email my annotations to myself. Imagine having all of the text that you highlighted in all of your books gathered up in searchable electronic form.
Even with this experience, I know what the researchers mean by the tactile elements of memory, the feeling of better control over your media with pages. I do remember where to find things in books by their physical location in the book, which isn’t possible with an e-reader: you can only search terms and page numbers. I think the point here isn’t which search method is more efficient, but which reading style engages more of the brain by engaging more of our physical senses. So I appreciate ebooks and use them quite a bit, but for educational purposes, especially in K-12 environments, we should use them carefully and deliberately, being aware of their drawbacks as well.
I’d like you to consider a few things about the way we developed our technologies:
The people who developed our technologies didn’t have our technologies. In other words, the people who built the first computer didn’t have computers.
The engineers who landed men on the moon did most of their work on slide rules.
The computers that they did at first use had less computing power than our telephones.
So we should use the best technology available to us while being aware of its limitations. Don’t dump your printed books. Continue reading in multiple media, and make sure your children especially regularly read printed books.
When I was sixteen I took Shōrin-ryū lessons with a friend of mine at the local Y. The first thing we asked our instructor was, “When will we receive training with weapons?” Why did we ask this question? Because we were sixteen. Our instructor, who was not sixteen, fortunately, told us that he didn’t train students to use weapons until they were at least a brown belt, which is one stage before black, because weapons are an extension of our bodies. We can’t learn to use weapons properly until we learn to use our bodies properly.
Similarly, technology is an extension of our minds. All the tech in the world won’t make us smarter if we haven’t developed our minds. Without that mental development, we’ll just be idiots with fancy toys, and I think we all know the world has enough of those already. So the first question we need to ask about any educational technology is, “In what ways, exactly, will this educational technology improve our teaching?” My experience with a great deal of educational technology is that the learning curve for instructors and students is so steep, and the tech so buggy, that tech, except when completely necessary, is as much an impediment to learning as it is a benefit.
When we think about the use of tech in education, we should also consider the fact that “traditional education” using “outmoded methods” invented the computer, the cellphone, and put astronauts on the moon. Given the history of education, I think it’s safe to say that educational tech is irrelevant to educational effectiveness. I think it’s important to understand that educational tech is not a magic bullet that will suddenly transform colleges into centers of effective learning (most of them actually are already). The basis of strong education is committed and well-supported instructors.
The Luddites were an early-industrial group of English workers who, because they were under the threat of being displaced by machinery, went out and started destroying machines. I don’t mean to advocate for some kind of twenty-first-century educational Luddism. There is no turning back, or away, from our culture’s dependence upon technology in the foreseeable future. I think we need to distinguish between educating students using technology and educating students to use technology. Rather than looking for the next magic pedagogical bullet in a box, I think we should be teaching our students to code, basic programming languages, how computers and networks work, and so on. We need to raise the bar on technological literacy, in other words, but that’s very different from looking for the latest multimillion dollar pedagogical tool while we continue to disinvest in teachers.
I would like to encourage students and instructors to focus primarily on developing the most advanced technology that we all have: that highly complex processor wet-wired between our ears. Read a lot and read increasingly complex texts. Learn how to write well. Take the most advanced math that you can. No matter what your major, try to get in at least a year of calculus before you finish college, preferably one semester before you finish high school. If you develop yourself in these ways, your tech will be an extension of your highly developed mind enabling you to do things better and faster. If you don’t, your tech will do your thinking for you, and the only possibilities that you’ll ever be able to consider will be determined by the programming parameters of your equipment.
Some time back I followed a LinkedIn discussion in which one instructor took the position that teachers are entertainers because learning should be fun, and another took issue with him — he maybe agreed that learning should be fun, but he didn’t like the idea that teachers are entertainers. I think it wouldn’t hurt to consider how we use the words “fun” and “entertainment” when we think about classroom experiences and instructor’s roles.
We tend to say that we’re “entertained” by films, plays, concerts, stand-up comics, etc. Actors, comics, and musicians are entertainers. Being entertainers, they perform while we watch, and we enjoy what we’re watching. But when we’re being entertained, we’re passive. However, we have fun at the beach, the carnival, or when we’re playing games. When we’re having fun, we’re active. So by these definitions, whenever instructors are acting like entertainers, students are passive observers, but when students are having fun, they’re engaged — they’re doing something. So if instructors are entertainers, students aren’t having fun.
But to say that students should have fun in the classroom doesn’t seem quite right either: “fun” seems mindless (though it doesn’t have to be), and mindless isn’t what a college classroom should be. I think we should abandon the notion of fun altogether and adopt the idea of pleasure instead, so that we think about learning as an advanced form of pleasure. I’m drawing here from Book VII of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he distinguishes carefully between the pleasures of the body and the pleasures of the soul:
Neither practical wisdom nor any state of being is impeded by the pleasure arising from it; it is foreign pleasures that impede, for the pleasures arising from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.
There are pleasures that impede growth and pleasures that foster growth, and learning is one of the pleasures that foster growth. Aristotle calls these pleasures “natural.” They’re like eating. We eat so that we can live, and pleasure is a natural by-product of our eating, but not the purpose of eating. Learning should work the same way. We learn so we can live and grow, and the natural by-product of learning is pleasure, but pleasure isn’t the purpose of learning. It’s just a by-product. When students truly learn, when a light comes on and they see something — maybe even the whole world — in ways that they haven’t before, those students experience a deep pleasure that makes them want to learn even more. As we learn, our ability to gain pleasure from learning grows with us.
Strategies for increasing the pleasure of learning:
“Big picture” teaching — teaching that relates the material to students’ own lived experiences, prior knowledge, and future lives.
Minimizing (though not eliminating) lectures and involving students in more activities: have students do something with the knowledge they acquire.
Problem solving activities are perhaps the best. Pose a problem for students to solve with the material at hand.
These strategies work, usually. Are they limited? Of course — by reasonable class sizes, by the amount of instructor support, and by students’ prior learning experiences, which usually involve having all of the imagination and pleasures of learning beaten out of them by test preparation instruction — and by hours of mindless fun in front of a television set or playing a video game.
But I’ve also seen students resistant to learning have their heads turned by these strategies, so they’re worth trying.
Educational spending for just these twelve countries combined is about $1.8 trillion, representing a massive investment of time, money, and resources to educate our children. And yes, this chart is primarily spending on school-aged children. Since the cutoff point is age 23, it doesn’t represent higher education spending at the graduate level. It also may not represent our total spending on education K-16, which includes a host of para-educational industries involving numerous vendors for everything from food to technology, the administration and scoring of certification tests, video production, spending on supplies, child care, and more, at least some of which are directly out of pocket for parents. Educational institutions are facing an increasingly aggressive barrage of vendors hyping new technologies, and too many colleges are looking for technological magic bullets — because education doesn’t seem effective enough, salesmen selling new tech are more convincing than teachers saying they would like some support, but they need it.
How is the United States doing? We’re number one in spending (of course), number three in literacy, number five in number of years spent in school, number ten in math, and number nine in science — if you recall, Obama emphasized math and science education. Now we see why.
Because we’re spending massive amounts of money already, and then trying to fix our educational shortcomings by spending even more massive amounts of money (just in new ways), I think we’re forgetting a few important things here.
First, education is a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not even limited to human beings — here’s a video you may have already seen:
The most naturally occurring educational practice in nature is simply mimesis, or imitation. A mommy dog wants to teach a puppy dog how to walk down a set of stairs, so it goes up and down the stairs until the puppy learns. We learn how to do something by watching others do it. Birds and cheetahs teach their young to hunt; herbivores teach their young to run away:
Human education has been going on — has been naturally occurring — for as long as there have been human beings. It’s become increasingly specialized, of course, with the advent of print, the development of new sciences and technologies, and the diversification of the workforce, but as of the late twentieth century the only technology actually needed for teaching is something to read, something to write with, and something to write on. So — get ready for the latest in cutting edge educational technology — I introduce you to the pad and pencil:
Are you impressed yet? We could add a calculator too, but well into the 1970s people were still using slide rules to do some of their advanced calculations. Anyone remember slide rules?
Because my father was an electrical engineer, slide rules are a childhood memory for me. But, I never learned how to use one. I grew up using calculators for advanced math.
So I’ll grant you a pad, a pencil, and a calculator, and you can make that calculator the most advanced graphing calculator that you want. That’s more than the minimal tech that we needed to educate our students throughout most of the twentieth century — which was the century that began space exploration, developed nuclear weapons, invented the computer, the internet, lasers, advanced study in genetics, magnetic imaging… the list goes on. For the most part, there was no such thing as online education until the last ten years of the twentieth century. There were no MOOCs, not nearly as much educational research, and relatively little brain research supporting it. For most of the twentieth century most of our educators didn’t have degrees in education. Most students in the US didn’t even work on computers until the last fifteen to twenty years of the twentieth century. We made these advances using, horror of horrors, a host of “failed” practices, such as lectures delivered in lecture halls, but it does appear that students managed to learn.
Why? Because education is a naturally occurring phenomenon, and as it occurs in nature, human beings were teaching other human beings. Of course, some people even today are educating students with a lot less than what most people reading this blog have now.
What I would like us to do is forget for a moment about education as an industry, and education as an institution, and think about education just as a naturally occurring human activity. You might remember sitting in your mother’s or father’s lap as they read to you. You might remember learning how to throw a ball. You might remember enjoying a good book, learning how to draw, finally understanding math. The point is that learning is fundamentally pleasurable. Learning is one of our great natural sources of pleasure.
It can be that way in school, too. I would like to encourage students reading this blog to try to extend the pleasures of learning to the classroom, and I’d like to encourage teachers reading this blog to consider how we can encourage the pleasures of learning within institutional settings. I think this change will require thinking very differently about education, though — in some cases, it might mean completely changing our thinking about education.
What I think kills the pleasures of learning is the fact that we’re forced to go to school for twelve years or more, and then once we go there, we’re made to do work, and that work is then graded — which feels like being in state of continual judgment. I would like to suggest adopting three attitudes that will help us recover the pleasures of learning in the classroom, and they mostly affect how we view the grades that we earn in school and the work that we do in school:
First, students do not work for teachers. Students work for themselves, and teachers work for the good of students. Students are not the teacher’s employer, however — teachers are employed by and accountable to a system, but their work within that system is for the benefit of students. When students think of their teacher as their employer, their time in school is nothing more than putting in time. What I tell my students, though, is that their minds are like muscles: when they work them, they get stronger, and when they leave them alone, they atrophy. In practical terms, every time teachers assign reading or writing or any other kind of homework, they are creating work for themselves. Assigned reading is reading the teacher needs to do and assigned papers are papers that the teacher needs to grade. Teachers don’t receive any personal benefit from grading student work — trust me on this. Teachers who assign meaningful work and provide meaningful feedback are working for their students. Teachers who do not are working for themselves. The doing of the work and the grading of it is all for the student’s benefit.
Next, teachers grade student work, not students. I quit letting my students tell me that “I gave them an A on this paper” a long time ago. First, I didn’t give them anything — if they received an A, they earned an A, and I try to help them understand their grade by reviewing and explaining my rubrics and applying it to their papers consistently. But more importantly, I didn’t give them a grade of A. I assigned that grade to their paper. I’m not grading the student, I’m grading the student’s work.
Furthermore, teachers grade student performance, not student ability. Did you write a really bad paper? Did you write it the night before it was due? Do you really think that’s your best work? Of course not. But, sometimes it is, and sometimes our best work is bad, but even then, doing bad work is part of the learning process. Since teachers don’t grade students, but student work, grades are at most an indication of student’s progress on that specific assignment, not a global assessment of their future potential. An F grade does not necessarily mean an F student.
My suggestions here have to do with developing productive ways of thinking within the system, not with changing the system itself. I do think the system needs to change, and in a lot of ways. You can read my ideas for systemic change in other blog entries.
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