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Good Writing For Good Causes

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Mobile Register
October 12, 1995

By David Thomasson

Class act: teaching without lectures,
learning without notes

Thinking is like piano-playing; it is shown, not taught.
— Jacques Barzun

In the Sunday Insight section of Sept. 17, Herbert Rotfeld, a professor of marketing at Auburn, argued that many colleges have let teaching slide down their list of priorities. A sign of this, Rotfeld observed, is that students donít take class notes the way they used to. He recalled an encyclopedia article on college published years ago, illustrated with a picture of students diligently taking notes. "Four years of college," the caption read, "produces notebooks filled with important information from courses."

Although Rotfeldís conclusion about declining standards of teaching is beyond faulting, this is a rickety leg to stand it on. I suspect that where good teaching and the consequent learning are occurring, students are probably not taking many notes.

As often as not, note-taking is a barrier to learning. One reason for this is that the vast majority of students take notes in the passive mode, uncritically scribbling own anything that issues from a professorís lips.

A decade or so ago, a Sunday Doonesbury comic captured this phenomenon beautifully. It showed students bowed over notebooks, dutifully transcribing a lecture. Fed up with this mindless exercise, the professor began spouting nonsense: "Up is down. Black is white. Left is right. Thomas Jefferson was the Antichrist." Without pausing in his note-taking, a student whispered to his neighbor, "I didnít know any of this stuff."

When teachers allow that sort of thing to go on under their noses, they are probably gripped by the conceit that teaching and learning are essentially a matter of transferring information. Students are empty bottles to be filled from the information vats that are the faculty.

Professors, to be sure, are full of information. A problem is that when they deliver it to a roomful of scribblers, the information goes not into the studentsí minds but into their notebooks. They will "learn" it later when they sit down to "study." Translation: They will memorize it later when they sit down to memorize.

I discovered just how wrong this assumption can be when I asked students on an ethics exam to state one of Kantís several versions of his Categorical Imperative — a giveaway, I thought, for note-takers and memorizers. After I graded the exams, a young lady who had botched that question said she thought she had nailed Kant accurately. To prove it, she showed me her class notes — a verbal hash that looked like a dog's breakfast.

Stirred in among indecipherable fragments about Kant was this surprisingly clear sentence: "Iím going out with Randy this weekend!!" I asked the young lady what this might mean, and she explained, "Oh, that was a note to Michelle" (a classmate).

It is a grievous but common error for teachers to imagine that students know what theyíre about when they take notes. Note-taking is widely regarded as vital to learning. Yet, thinking back over the college courses Iíve taken, I canít recall a single professor ever trying to teach this allegedly crucial skill. Where are undergraduates supposed to have acquired it? In high school?

Teachers who made the greatest difference in my education often taught in a way that didnít lend itself to note-taking. To illustrate, a philosophy professor introduced the problem of free will by writing "Every event has a cause" on the board. Does everyone agree that this is a true statement? he asked. There were no dissenters in the class.

Suddenly the professor threw a piece of chalk across the room. What caused that event? he asked. Someone said, "The motion of your arm." And what caused the motion of my arm? Someone else told a story about electrical impulses traveling from the brain to the arm. And what caused the electricity to shoot out of my brain in just that way at just that moment? (The pencils had stopped; the minds had started.) Several students cited mental events: "You decided to throw it" or "You chose to throw it." And what caused me to choose to throw it?

Here the students began to feel the pinch of a dilemma. The professor went back to the board and wrote, "Some of our actions are freely chosen." Does everyone agree that this is a true statement? Again, no dissenters. And isnít throwing chalk an example of an act freely chosen?

Well, now. If choices are caused, then they arenít free. Theyíre determined, like leaves blowing in the wind. How do you reconcile your belief in free will with your belief that every event has a cause?

Students left that class with their minds wrapped around something neither simple nor obvious, something they wanted to unravel. The mental work they began doing in that class could, if continued, bring about some authentic learning.

The professor could have delivered a lecture filled with ďinformationĒ on what various philosophers have said about free will. And judging from the studentsí busy note-taking, a casual observer might have supposed that their minds were also busy wrestling with the problem of free will.

But I think itís more likely that their minds would have been busy with other matters, such as wrestling with Randy.

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