I wondered if I would be able to follow through on my great Luddite classroom experiment, to leave electronics behind. For a few weeks prior to the class I tried to convince myself that it would be manageable; maybe it would even be enjoyable. The pencils were sharpened and the notebook had plenty of blank pages. Ticonderoga pencils and the trusty Moleskine notebook would serve as my tools for the week. Could I let the Macbook rest? Would I?
The class was set to begin—a full week of lectures at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, my alma mater. Despite the moniker Puritan, the seminary is not a Luddite institution; rather it has state of the art pedagogical technologies. The school is very high tech as far as seminaries go.
At the end of 2008 I finished my pastoral training at Puritan, but I have continued to study since then. As a matter of fact, since completing my undergraduate work in college I have taken 86 seminary classes for credit. This class would make number 87. I am no stranger to the classroom, by any means, and I have been quite content for all these years tapping away on the keyboard along with my fellow seminarians. Why would I change my method of note taking now? It has served me well so far. The clicking away on keyboards is quite familiar in all Puritan classrooms, and it is true of the other seminary from which I graduated: The Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Keyboard clicks and taps are familiar sounds in seminary classrooms. I am sure this is true of all humanities and social science departments.
But I have been wondering if that is the way that it should be. Are laptops really necessary in the academy? Do they add pedagogical value in respect to note taking? I am beginning to doubt.
For the last several years I have been reading about how writing notes by hand instead of typing them is better for a student. I have been convinced since 2012, that hand writing sermon notes and sermon preparation is personally helpful. Since the summer of 2012, I have hand written all of my notes during study time and then completed my final sermon manuscripts on my laptop. That transition did not ruin my life; would I be able to do the same in the classroom?
The Luddite Experiment
The forty-some students filed into the classroom unpacking their gadgets and laptops. Professor Chad Van Dixhoorn was on the raised platform with an image of a mid-seventeenth century manuscript on the giant screen behind him. As I sat down, I pulled out my Macbook as usual, but as I reached to plug it in, my hand hesitated.
I would take the plunge.
I would take notes the old fashioned way. A Ticonderoga pencil and my Moleskine notebook would be my tools for the week. And I am very glad that I did.
Before I describe the benefits I received from using the pencil and notebook method, let me be up front about two challenges I needed to get over:
1. I would not have an electronic copy of my notes. If I thought that I needed an electronic copy, I would have to create one following the class. This was manageable and even though I have not investigated it, I know there are technologies that move handwriting to digital storage.
2. I might miss something that the professor said. Like most of you, I type much faster than I write. This was more of an emotional hurdle than an intellectual one. No one types everything that is said.
So, what benefits did I receive from writing my notes rather than typing them?
I have had a couple of weeks to reflect on this question and here are some thoughts. Since this post is written for my friend Dr. Murray, I thought that I would use alliteration so that you can remember my thoughts for your next note taking experience.
Fundamentally Better for Memory & Retention
Several studies have come out in the last several years that show how hand writing notes improves a students retention of the lecture material and memory of classroom discussion. As I took notes, it was clear to me that I had to think in terms of concepts and ideas rather than focusing on being a courtroom reporter. Writing out the important concepts, memorable quotes, outlining the lecture, and interacting as the professor lectured helped to retain more of the material being presented.
Freedom from Anxiety for Not Getting It All
The anxiety of missing some of the professor’s thoughts has always been a large factor in my practice of typing notes. That anxiety needed to be set aside, and as I came to terms with the fact that I would not be able to write down everything, the ability to interact with the lecture increased. Instead of hoping that I had written down everything, I was okay with the fact that I was not going to get all of the words, and instead I got the concepts. In regular conversation, people remember concepts and a few good quotes more than they remember word-for-word what the speaker has said. Why should lectures be different? Concepts and good quotes are usually more important than exact phrasing. It’s nice to be free from that false anxiety.
Fatigue-free Without Screen-induced Eye Strain
Less anxiety leads to less fatigue. Of course, there is another fatigue that occurs from the classroom and it is connected to the screen. Dry eyes, watery eyes, headaches, tiredness, and even exhaustion are part of modern student life due to the many hours of staring at screens. Eye doctors have even made a label for the diagnosis: Digital Eye Strain (DES).
Being free from the screen means that the student is free from the symptoms that the screen brings. This class was a week long and the lectures went from 9AM to 5PM with a lunch break. There were many tired eyes in the class by the end of the week. Truthfully, although the week was mentally challenging, I felt refreshed all week long. I left classes energized rather than exhausted.
Framing of My Notes
I did not anticipate this benefit, but I do appreciate what the pencil and paper were able to accomplish in this area. Have you ever had a professor write on the white board and you could not capture his or her conceptual diagrams in your laptop notes? I have never been very good at making shapes and diagrams on my laptop, but I can draw in my notebook. I can doodle an idea.
Diagrams, conceptual notes, doodles, graphs, and other visual elements that help the learner are much easier with pencil and paper than they are with a laptop. Notes that include outlines, words, quotes, and visual elements are useful for the learner. This is much easier to accomplish with pencil than it is with pixel.
Fun and Enjoyment of the Lectures
This is very subjective, but I really feel — subjective word — that the lectures were more fun to hear, maybe because I did not find myself slavishly bound to my laptop or because I was able to reflect more on what was being said. Maybe because my thoughts shifted from being a court reporter to being an active hearer. I can’t prove this, but it was a lot of fun to just listen and enjoy the lectures on their own terms.
Focus Rather than Multitasking
Maybe the fun was because I was more focused. If you are like me, you get popup reminders and notifications when you are on your laptop. While typing this article, I received a reminder that I need to back up my computer to iCloud. I have been reminded that my Adobe is outdated again. I have been distracted by pop ups of text messages. My email keeps getting refreshed and I have paused to answer a few of those. Those awful Facebook notifications keep telling me that friends have written in certain Facebook groups, people have liked my recent photo, and that troll has responded to my comment on my friend’s wall. Laptops are distracting work environments.
As I sat in Dr. Van Dixhoorn’s class, none of these things distracted me. I did not feel the need to answer emails because I was not on my laptop. I stayed off Facebook until breaks or the evening. All of these things could wait: the tyranny of the urgent was slain.
We are so used to multitasking that we forget that we can only really do well one thing at a time. Professors, do you know this is going on in your classrooms? Why is Wi-Fi really necessary in each class? I am not sure, but I know in this course I was focused and I was thankful that I did not have to multitask during class.
Fraternity with the Professor
Perhaps my favorite benefit was one that I was not expecting. I’ve read the books on how technology is changing us. I have read the medical journals and newspaper articles about typing and memory. I was prepared for many of the benefits, but I was not prepared for the fraternity with the professor.
We all know that communication is about more than just words. Body language, eye contact, subtle nuances of speech, tone, and expression each contribute to communication. We know this, but how many students are communicating in these ways with the professor? How much fraternity is in the classroom?
I don’t pretend to know what was going on in the two rows behind me, but I know that in the rows ahead of me and in my own row, the students were mostly staring at their screens. They were working of course, but attached to the screen as they worked.
While others were staring at their screens I was enjoying eye contact with the professor, interacting with him as a communicator rather than merely a voice containing words. We are created to communicate with our whole person. Has this been largely lost in the classroom? I am convinced that hand writing notes will help us in learning to communicate and interpret more than just words. Fraternity ought to be regained in the classroom.
Challenge to Students:
So what do we do with this information? There is ample evidence that hand writing notes is pedagogically superior than typing them. How can this find its way back into the classroom? I would like to offer a challenge to the students who are reading this:
Hand write your notes for two weeks and see if you experience the same things that I have described.
As you accept the challenge, here are a few pointers:
1. Do much of your work in advance. Read the material. Be familiar with what’s being taught. Know what the professor is lecturing on. When you are more prepared for class, you will have a better classroom experience. Did you know that a syllabus includes the reading list and often a professor will tell what pages should be read prior to each class? Read those pages.
2. Get a high quality notebook. If you want to save your notes, write them in something worth saving. Dollar store spiral bound notebooks are less likely to survive than a high quality notebook. I prefer the Moleskine large classic squared notebook. You can get it for less than $20 and mine will last several months—and I take notes on every event of life.
3. Have good writing tools. I mentioned that I like the Ticonderoga HB2 pencils. I get them in black. I like the way that they write. The graphite does not break like cheap pencils. Of course, some prefer a mechanical pencil: I would recommend the Staedtler drafting pencil.
Good tools promote good work.
4. Learn some short hand. You don’t have to learn a whole new alphabet, just learn some common words and correlating symbols. There are several symbols that are useful for note taking. Watch a few Youtube videos on shorthand. You can also make up some of your own symbols. When I have a word or phrase that I know will be used frequently, I will write the word and in parenthesis make the symbol for it. For example: Westminster Assembly (WA). Then the rest of the time, WA will be sufficient. It’s simple, and it saves time as you take notes.
I hope you take the challenge. As a lifelong student, I do believe that you will really enjoy it!
Challenge to professors:
It may be a bit bold, but here goes:
Professors, ask that the laptops, iThings, and tablets be put away.
Do it for one course and see if you like the results. This will not ruin your students’ lives, but it ought to enrich them, stretch them, and even benefit them. A history professor in my congregation has this as a regular classroom requirement and it has gone very well for his undergraduates. There are others who could, from a professor’s perspective, testify concerning the benefits in the classroom.
The studies are everywhere. It is good for a student to not stare at screens. It is good for a student to write on paper with his or her hand. It is not only good educationally, it is good physically and mentally. Your students may not know this, but you do. Equip them.
Require laptops to be closed. Require hand written notes. The current generation of college students has never known a time when school work was not done on a computer. Show them the joys and benefits. Require that class notes be written by hand.
I would love to hear from you concerning your experience with this. I think you will enjoy the communication and the classroom fraternity. It’s sure to be an improvement over staring at heads and merely hearing the tapping of keyboards.
Longhand and pencraft are valuable. It’s time to reclaim them.
Nathan Eshelman is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Los Angeles, California. He is an MDiv graduate of Puritan Reformed Seminary and a DMin graduate of The Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. He is married to Lydia and they have five children. He also blogs at Gentle Reformation.