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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Note-taking practices: To each their own

LaBreea Walsh’s March 10th article regarding note-taking seemed to suggest that taking notes by hand is always the best situation for every student. I’m skeptical by nature of any article that claims to know unilaterally what is best for every student on campus, and this issue in particular is one that is near and dear to me. While I respect the opinion stated in the article, Walsh seems to be writing the article primarily from a perspective of personal experience, and in doing so disregarding those of us who might have a vastly different set of circumstances.

As many people who know me or have been in a class with me are aware, I am Autistic. What many people do not realize is that autism affects fine motor skills. For me, taking effective notes by hand is an impossibility. I can’t keep up with even a slow lecture, even if, as Walsh suggests, I only take down “the important topics and details” (and what does that even mean? It certainly doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone). This causes me to become frantic and leave out important words or topics as I rush through note-taking for fear of being left even further behind. My hand cramps after about 10-15 minutes because of the way I have to hold a pen in order to have any hope of controlling it enough to form words. And having someone take notes for me, which is an option for some people, simply isn’t feasible in my particular case because I think and process differently than most other people, and if my notes are going to help me at all, they need to be written by someone who understands the way I think—in other words, me. Computer note-taking, in short, is pretty much the only thing that works for me.

The article also suggests that “In a world where everything is digital and everything is online, I think it is important for us to unplug for some time even if it means for a 50 or 75 minute lecture.” This is an opinion I hear often, the idea that we rely “too much” on technology, and again, this idea completely discounts me and the many other individuals I know for whom modern technology has opened countless doors. While I do agree that it is important for most people to unplug from technology once in a while (not counting those who rely on technology for communication or other basic functions of daily life), for people like me, that time is decidedly not a situation in which a course grade is dependent upon my ability to quickly record a large amount of information.

Walsh also states that taking notes by hand is a better option because transferring handwritten notes into an electronic file offers “a great way to learn and review the material.” Not only does this sentence provide another example of an unqualified statement that erases the experience of students who have more challenges than most when it comes to writing notes by hand (handwriting is hardly “a better option” for everyone), it supposes a certain style of learning universal among students. For some, myself included, rewriting my notes quickly becomes an exercise in mindless, rote activity—exactly what Walsh claims computer-based note-taking commonly becomes—and after a few pages, I am not absorbing any of the material. This also discounts the experience of students who must carefully budget their time because they may have families to care for and/or be working multiple jobs at the same time as they are attending school. For these students, unless rewriting notes is an extremely effective means of learning the material for that individual, this would cut into time they could spend studying in the way that works best for them, whatever that means to the individual.

I understand fully that distraction in lectures is a problem in need of a solution, but Walsh’s suggestion that professors should enforce a no-screen rule would seem to be a cure worse than the proverbial disease. At best, students with disabilities requiring them to type their notes would be exempted from these rules, but they would (and are, in the cases of some individual professors who ban laptops now) then be forced to be the only individuals in their classes with laptops, essentially announcing to the world that they have what might otherwise be an invisible disability—and there is no telling how many students might choose to take poor notes or no notes at all rather than “out” themselves in a culture that still stigmatizes disability. And students without a diagnosed disability who just find themselves able to take better notes typing than handwriting? They would be out of luck completely.

If Walsh, or other individuals, find that they derive a substantial benefit from bucking technology and taking notes by hand, no one is stopping them. But it is unfair to say the least that a few individuals should use the lens of their personal experiences to view a complex situation and then suggest that what they have determined are the best practices for their individual situations should be instituted as policy for a campus of forty thousand. If there’s one lesson to learn from such a large student body, it’s that everyone learns differently, and what’s ideal for one person can be disastrous for another.

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