Taking Notes in an Active Learning Classroom: Does It Even Matter?

Light in Traffic, TaipeiBack in February, I posted a short lit review of the research on student notetaking. I was recently reminded of a couple of studies worth adding to that discussion. First, a couple of takeaways from that earlier lit review:

  • In a lecture setting, students who take longhand notes outperform students who take notes on laptops, at least on measures of conceptual understanding and long-term factual recall (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).
  • There’s not much in the literature about student notetaking practices outside of the traditional lecture setting, such as during classwide discussions or small group activities.

An interesting element of the Muller and Oppenheimer study was that the laptop students weren’t allowed to use their laptops for anything other than taking notes. One might think that if students were allowed to, say, check Facebook or ESPN during lecture, the use of laptops might even be more detrimental to student learning. And one would be right. Sana, Weston, and Cepeda (2012) showed that students who “multitasked” on their laptops during lecture fared worse on a test of comprehension immediately following the lecture. Moreover, students who took notes longhand but could see a “multitasker” in the seats in front of them also did badly on comprehension tests. A laptop-using student creates a “cone of distraction” affecting all the students behind him in the lecture hall.

Here’s another study that reflects poorly on mobile devices — cell phones this time — in the classroom. Duncan, Hoekstra, and Wilcox (2012) investigated cell phone use by students in five introductory science courses through in-class observations, student surveys, and semi-structured interviews with students. They found that (a) there was a significant negative correlation between cell phone use and final grades and (b) students underestimated how frequently they used their cell phones during class. It’s significant that these five courses weren’t traditional lecture courses. Each course used clicker-facilitated peer instruction exercises to engage student during class. Even in these active learning classrooms, cell phones posed a dangerous distraction to students.

What’s really interesting about the Duncan, Hoekstra, and Wilcox study is what they observed in three other intro science courses, also active learning classes using peer instruction and clickers. Most students (60%) took notes longhand, 12% took notes on laptops, and 28% took no notes at all during class. Here’s the kicker: “Students’ final grades were statistically indistinguishable across the three note-taking methods.” That’s right, in this active learning classroom, it didn’t matter how students took notes! Why would that be? I got a clue during a talk at Vanderbilt by study co-author Bethany Wilcox back in 2012:

This didn’t surprise me since I rarely see my own students take notes during clicker questions, something about which I’ve always felt conflicted. On the one hand, I like that clicker questions — and the associated small-group and classwide discussions — break students out of “scribe” mode and get them thinking and learning. On the other hand, if students don’t take notes during clicker questions, I’m not sure how they go about reviewing those questions after class while studying. Perhaps they don’t need to? Perhaps the clicker questions — and associated discussions — are so successful at helping students learn that they don’t need further review after class. I’m skeptical that’s true in all cases!  I suspect that some students, at least, would benefit from taking notes on clicker questions.

In this study, however, students didn’t take notes during clicker activities. And that may explain the finding that notetaking practices weren’t correlated with final grades in these courses. If most of the students’ learning occurred during clicker activities — when no one took notes — it wouldn’t matter much how students took notes outside of those activities.

Where does this leave us? In lecture settings, laptops have the potential to distract students. They’re not great for taking notes (according to the Muller and Oppenheimer study), so their use should probably be discouraged. In active learning classrooms, cell phones can pose a significant distraction to students and taking notes doesn’t seem all that important. I see two open research questions here:

  • Students in the Duncan, Hoekstra, and Wilcox study didn’t take notes during clicker activities, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have benefited from doing so. Should students take notes during clicker activities and similar active learning exercises? If so, how?
  • In all of these studies, the only on-topic use of students’ mobile devices was taking notes. From speaking with instructors who have their students use laptops and cell phones for more active tasks (“Google jockeys,” classroom response systems, and so on), students in such classrooms use their digital devices for distraction far less often. Anecdotes are great, but is there any data to support this hypothesis?

Your thoughts on either of these questions are welcome!

References

Image: “Light in traffic, Taipei,” Luke Ma, Flickr (CC)

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