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Note Taking

The following appeared on the chemistry education listserv.  I have edited the original document to protect the identities of innocent civilians.

I admit I took a long time to learn to be a good note taker.  In high school I did not take notes at all.  In college I either didn't take notes, or I operated in transcription mode.  I suspect the reason for this was because things came easy enough for me that I could get by at a satisfactory level without having to get as much as possible from lecture.

In grad school it became obvious I needed and/or wanted to get more out of many of the excellent lectures and colloquia I attended.  That's when I finally learned to become an active listener and take appropriate notes.

Most college students are the same (or worse) than I was, so I assume I need to talk to them about active listening and appropriate note taking.  I do this to the whole class at the beginning of each term, then repeat it individually to struggling students when they come to my office for help.

The most effective way of getting my message across has been to show them my notes from a graduate-school quantum mechanics course.  I pass around this spiral 8.5 x 11 notebook, and it is a work of art.  Each lecture has 3 or 4 pages of beautifully written notes, complete with graphs, figures, and my own comments.

Students are flabbergasted.  How could I possible write so fast, so neatly, and glean so much from the lecture.  I must be a genius.  Then... then I pass around the original notebook.  The original notebook is a separate spiral-bound notebook.  It's the one I actually took to class.  It is much more sparse, not very neat, with quite a few questions such as "is this true?" or "look this up."  I then explain that the first notebook I showed them was not the actual notebook I took to class.  The beautiful book that amazed them so much was written each evening.  Each evening I sat down with the original notes, the textbook, any other appropriate books or references, and I spent an hour or two writing a new set of notes.

Then I explain that although I sometimes referred to the second set of notes, I didn't really have to study them much, because it was in the generation of the second book that the real learning took place.  Although I do have a beautiful set of "notes" for that course, creating the notebook itself was not the goal.  The goal of the second notebook was not a set of notes to study.  The goal of the second notebook was the process I had to go through to get it.  After going through the process I could have burned the book, except it was such a beautiful memento that I decided to keep it.

Then I state that it is difficult for me to comprehend how a student would not pass my course if they would learn how to "study" this way and take the time to do it.

Alas, once after I said this, one student actually said out loud, "I don't care enough about chemistry to spend that much time on it."  A colleague has just described a similar response she got from a student.  When my student said this to me (in front of the whole class) I didn't have a snippy comeback,so I just stood there simmering silently for perhaps 30 seconds; then I went on to the next topic of the day.  I suppose my silent response (which seemed like an eternity) was a pretty good one.