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Archive for June 9th, 2010

Note-Taking and Study

When I was in Primary school, watching the BBC schools programmes was an established part of the curriculum, and I remember the entire school year filing into a classroom or the library to watch whichever educational programme had been selected by the teachers.

To my surprise, one day, a stand-in teacher (not our regular class teacher) gave out pieces of paper to each student before we lined up to walk to the TV room, saying that these pieces of paper were so that we could make notes.

Before I realised it, the TV show had finished, and I hadn’t written a single word on my piece of paper. The idea of summarising key points or key words as the TV show progressed was an entirely new thing to me, and without any time to consider the matter beforehand and think how I was going to approach this completely novel request, I simply didn’t know what to write.

Many years later, after extensive training on very precise technology and methodologies on study and learning, I realised exactly what had happened.

Note-taking requires judgement – the student has to be able to decide quickly which facts are key data and which are less important. When the person already has a certain amount of familiarity with the subject area, this may not be too difficult.

When a person is less familiar with the subject material being presented (I believe the programme was about Greek or Roman mythology, of which I had zero prior knowledge), he or she may be less able to determine the relative importances of the facts being presented to him or her. The student just isn’t sufficiently au fait with the material to make that judgement call.  Understanding has to be present before judgement can occur.

Unfortunately for the student, that presents a problem. How does one summarise a lecture, for instance, when the entire subject is new, and one hasn’t yet the luxury of that necessary level of understanding?

It never sat well with me when I read in one of Tony Buzan’s study guides that a study had shown that key words written down by the student was the most effective note-taking, while a full lecture transcript given out by the teacher was the worst. I can only conclude that the participants in the study were already very familiar with the subject area. It may be that some kind of inverse ratio operates, i.e. already very knowledgeable attendees get the most out of making their own key notes, whereas very unfamiliar students would benefit from much more complete course notes.

My experience of running courses is that students miss bits. I would never, ever rely upon a student to take complete notes, especially when new to the subject. Nomenclature gets missed, people fog out, lose concentration etc. What vital information could the lecturer or teacher be presenting while the student has dropped his book, starts thinking about something else, or whatever?

Most of the courses I ran had complete, verbatim transcripts, and for good reason. It made a much easier task of tracking down what the student had missed, didn’t grasp, etc.

It is a pity that Buzan and other study guide authors never point out that people approach a subject from a very wide spectrum of prior knowledge and study abilities, and tailor their books accordingly. It is my opinion as an experienced course supervisor and study debug specialist that nearly all such books are written for highly literate, well-educated students, rather than the very people who need to learn some real study skills.

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