Tara Brabazon: Take note as another learning discipline slides away

July 28, 2010

After exam boards have been conducted, letters signed and mailed to students, external examiners thanked and supplementary assessments created, there is a moment – a fracture in time – where academics breathe, reflect and consolidate. Before writing courses for the September start, I take a week to think about the semesters that have passed. I review my teaching journal, think about student reviews and locate the literature that has emerged in the past few months while I’ve been buried in marking, moderating and examining.

This year has been special. All my students – from first year through to doctoral candidates – have been engaged, challenging and provocative. They have big personalities, work hard and care about both personal success and wider social justice. There was Alex who saw every concept, from postFordism through to information literacy, through the gauze of Lady Gaga. Toby never knew how extraordinary he was until the final seminar of his first year when fellow students burst into spontaneous applause in response to one of his comments. Aimee thought deeply, read widely and arrived 30 minutes before each lecture to make sure she did not miss it. Sophie discovered Google Scholar early in the course and proceeded to give her colleagues updates of the conference papers she had read during the week.

Learning from students

This group of students helped me more than they know. When returning assignments, I bring students into the office for an individual discussion. My first professor instigated this process for his students. It seems appropriate to continue his legacy. It is important, particularly in first year education, that each student has a direct and personal confirmation that academics know their name, care about them and provide help with reading, writing and thinking. Their improvement is our goal. One way to demonstrate this commitment is by sharing time.

This year, these conversations mattered because something odd emerged in almost half of the assignments. The usual issues surfaced with drafting. Students write a paper, put a spelling checker through it and press print. This problem is easy to solve. We as teachers create cycles of editing and show them that at least ten drafts are required before they even think about submitting a paper. To speed up their improvement, I give them a checklist to scaffold their independent editing.

How to edit an assignment

Draft one: Correct all spelling and grammatical issues

Draft two: Check that references are complete

Draft three: Verify that quotations are accurate

Draft four: Read the introduction. Does it map the trajectory of the paper?

Draft five: Read the conclusion. Is there an efficient and evocative ending to the assignment?

Draft six: Check the first sentence of each paragraph. Does it convey the content of the paragraph that follows it?

Draft seven: Check the last sentence of each paragraph. Does it create a transition to the next paragraph?

Draft eight: Read each word and sentence for meaning and clarity. Is each word required? When in doubt, chop it out

Draft nine: Ensure there is no fragmentation between sections of the argument

Draft ten: Have you answered the question? Return to the marking criteria. Are you addressing all the required elements in the assignment? What mark would you give the paper?

Flaws with writing, drafting and editing are easy to address. But this year, a new problem emerged in the feedback sessions. Half the cohort demonstrated no flow between ideas. It was as if each paragraph was written in isolation. To diagnose the cause of this strange structure, I asked to see their notes from module readings. Each student pulled out notes from the lecture and seminar. I replied that they looked fine, but where were their engagements with the readings?

The missing notes

Pause. There were no notes. Some highlighted a few phrases. Some scribbled a few comments in the margins of photocopies. Some gave the materials little more than a cursory reading.

This was a new problem. I still possess the notebooks from my first year at university, so I was able to show them the long-term value of such a process. The idea of taking notes from readings was foreign to at least half of my first-year students. After a few days thinking about how to help them, I developed a model for skill development triage.

How to take notes:

1. Keep notes separate from the source material. Do not write comments on the pages of books and articles

2. Refrain from highlighting text

3. Ensure that every module has a separate file. Keep notes from module readings separate from lecture and seminar notes

4. Ensure that all references are accurate. This will save time later

5. Either type or write your notes, but ensure they are legible for future use

6. Write the key argument of the writer/s in one sentence

7. Look at the bibliography/reference list used by the writer, noting the quality and dates of the cited scholarship

8. Copy important quotations accurately. Carefully differentiate between your independent interpretation, paraphrasing and direct quotations

9. Ensure notes are sufficiently detailed so that you do not need to return to the original text when writing assignments

10. Ensure your notes are sufficiently brief and you have not paraphrased the entire article.

After implementing these simple principles, students improved rapidly – by 20-30 per cent – between the two assignments. The intervention was successful. But I remained amazed and bewildered as to how a large proportion of our students entered university without the ability to take notes.

It’s the league tables again

For many months I pondered the cause of this problem. Then, while delivering a seminar in Portsmouth, my librarian audience explained why this behaviour was emerging.

They told me that in their schools, teachers deliver content via PowerPoint. Teachers upload slides to the virtual learning environment and print them out for the students to revise. There is a reason for this attentiveness. So many schools are conscious of league tables that teachers cannot risk student failure. They not only teach (to) the exam, but give students page after page (after page) of PowerPoint slides so that they do not risk missing anything from their notes.

One consequence of their actions is that students do not learn how to take notes from research material. A dependency culture on teachers is created, facilitated by PowerPoint and its non-Microsoft equivalents Keynote and Impress. When these students arrive at university, many academics perpetuate the problem. A lack of planning and preparation for a teaching session means too many walk into a lecture with a memory stick of PowerPoint slides. They have not written a lecture. They have written PowerPoint slides. They think these two things are the same. They are not. We see similar problems in conferences. Researchers are meant to present scholarship to colleagues. Instead they project PowerPoint slides.

PowerPoint did not cause this lack of care and respect for students. We all knew lecturers and tutors who wrote a few headings on the back of a cigarette packet or played a video instead of preparing for learning. I am lucky. I had the privilege and opportunity to complete teaching qualifications early in my academic career. I enrolled in courses with titles such as “Technologies for learning and teaching”. I was given guidelines, recommendations and research that detailed the most effective use of “supplementary materials” in a classroom.

The rule was simple: determine the aims of the teaching session first. Then write the session. Only then should you make a decision about the best media to convey ideas. Continually ask the question: what is the best media (form) to convey these ideas (content)? Unfortunately, this crucial moment of reflection in the selection of a platform for teaching and learning is often displaced. Instead, the default setting is PowerPoint. Reflection and consciousness in media selection is automated.

Less is better

Inexperienced teaching staff shortcut preparation and break the key mantra in the use of educational media. They read slides. When I was taught how to construct text-based supplementary materials, the rule was simple: if a teacher shows text, do not read it. Let visual literacies operate where they work best. Let auditory and oral literacies function where they are at their most efficient. Do not waste student time by reading what is before them on a screen. Less text is better text.

Think about the lectures, seminars and conferences you have attended in the past five years. Think about how many presenters used PowerPoint slides as notes for speaking. They either spent the entire session glued to the podium or looking back to the auditorium’s screen. Both systems perpetuated a single flaw: they read the text visible to the audience. Such an action is offensive to those who take the time to “listen” to a session.

This flaw in presentation and speaking leads to the final – and most serious – problem for our students. Such presenters have written their entire script on PowerPoint slides. Students recognised this strategy. Therefore, why should they attend a lecture or seminar when everything that is said is on the slides? That is not laziness on the part of a student. They are being logical. There is no benefit in attending the class.

The unfortunate consequence of this decision is that students lose – or do not gain – the ability to take notes. The decision by school teachers to present not only the key ideas from the curriculum, but notes from textbooks via PowerPoint slides is having an impact at universities. I am not demeaning or ridiculing the decisions made by schoolteachers. I understand the intense pressure they face from head teachers, parents and students to attain results that will elevate a school on league tables. But the long-term cost is that we have generations of students arriving at university unable to take notes from monographs and articles.

Students follow the teacher

When teachers confuse writing with PowerPointing and preparation with the construction of slides, it is no surprise that students also skip stages in reading, thinking and writing. This issue is not simply “about” PowerPoint. It combines with the use of low-level textbooks to create a learning experience of monotony, conformity and mediocrity.

Some of these tendencies are caused by the post-CNAA (Council for National Academic Awards) obsession with learning outcomes rather than learning. The desire for quality assurance rather than “quality” has manifested as ongoing mediocrity. When examining and moderating assignments and dissertations, I read bundles of papers that are unerringly the same. This is much more than the same teacher presenting a singular view to a class. The students have restated, and rarely reordered, the bullet points on lecture slides. When reviewing the teaching file, I match the PowerPoint presentation to paragraphs in the assignment. The students attained learning outcomes. Whether they actually learnt anything is debatable.

PowerPoint has not caused this problem. Its poor use is harming staff and students. It is making staff believe that they have prepared for a teaching session. It is making students think that they are taking notes, when they are simply copying slides prepared by someone else. The best use of PowerPoint I have seen is by DJs who use it as the visual backdrop for their sets. David Byrne famously used it to integrate visuality with music in his book and DVD, Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information. PowerPoint’s strengths emerge when it is disconnected from any form of oral presentation and becomes a self-standing mode of expressing basic information. One of the fascinations of Slideshare is that, when silencing the speaker and removing any pretence of oral communication, PowerPoint’s capacity for marketing, branding and advertising is revealed.

I understand the desire to use PowerPoint. Public speaking initiates fear. At conferences, I see experienced speakers shaking and sweating. I wonder why they put themselves through it. Similarly, preparation for a teaching session is stressful, time consuming and requires continual reflection. We as teachers are never good enough. We must improve. But PowerPoint creates a coma of conformity and a cap on student expectations of their learning environment.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor, argued that PowerPoint “lifts the floor” of public speaking and at the same time “lowers the ceiling”. Students do not see appalling lectures, but neither do they see the brilliant. Journalist Francisco van Jole was even more definitive, describing PowerPoint as: “Viagra of the spoken word…a wonder pill for flabby lectures.” Like Viagra, PowerPoint only appears to benefit the user. The little blue pill triggers unfortunate side-effects such as light-headedness, indigestion, lower back pain and seeing an aura around objects. Similarly, PowerPoint medicates a nervous and ill-prepared speaker. What about the side-effects on students? For all the celebration of student-centred learning, PowerPointed teaching passes without comment.

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