September 14th, 2015

Stop Taking Notes; Start Asking Questions

Why taking notes during lectures might be a bad idea

Originally published here:

I tend to see 2 kinds of students in the classes I’ve taken:

  1. Head down, frantically trying to capture everything they possibly can about lecture. Some are so practiced that they can practically transcribe the whole lecture into their notebook.

  2. The students with their laptops or phones open, browsing Facebook and generally doing everything but paying attention to lecture.

It’s obvious that the uninterested-Facebook-browser is using his time poorly during class. I take the (perhaps) controversial position that the frantic-note-taker is just as ineffective as uninterested-Facebook-browser, particularly for highly conceptual classes like in Computer Science.

Understanding a concept requires time and thought. In a computer science class, your questions might be: Why does an algorithm work? On which cases will it fail? Why does it run in O(N) time and not O(N Log N)? Is it possible that a faster algorithm exists? To truly understand a concept, it requires you to consider questions like these. What are the implications of the concept, how can the concept be applied, does the concept challenge other beliefs you’ve held? Thinking through these questions, and arriving at answers is what it means to understand a concept.

Note taking puts your brain to work at effectively capturing the content of a professor’s lecture. You get less time to effectively process the new information coming in. By the end of the lecture, you might walk away with detailed notes you can use as reference later when trying to understand a concept, but by leaving yourself little time to process the new information coming in, you’ve only deferred the learning process. You’ll still need to put in the time to understand the new material, but instead of having the professor to help you during class, all you’ll have are your notes. If a person didn’t take notes during class, it’s not hard to ask a friend for his, or download the prof’s PowerPoint presentation from online. With a little googling it might be possible to find notes from someone in the world who studied the same topic you did. Walking away from lecture having only produced notes of the lecture is hardly a productive use of your time. Listening to your professor, instead of wasting your time taking notes, frees your mind to focus on the information conveyed by the professor’s words, rather than the words themselves.

But I’ll be honest. If all you’re doing is listening to your professor, class can get rather boring. I have a really hard time just paying attention during lecture. About 30 minutes in, I tend to get extremely sleepy and have, on occasion, passed out during class. If all I’m doing is listening to a dense lecture, class becomes extremely boring for me. So boring I will literally fall asleep. I mitigate this problem by asking questions. It helps me keep my mind active, and maintain my interest on the subject matter because I am asking questions I’m genuinely curious about.

During lecture you have ~80 minutes of time with an expert on the subject matter. This person has spent years studying and understanding the material that he is teaching the class. He’s there to help you and is probably the single best resource you can use to excel in the class. Take advantage of this. If you don’t understand something, ask a question. You will avoid struggling to understand the concept later.

It is true that some professors create an uninviting environment for questions. These professors power through their lecture hardly looking at their students. Some of these professors might even pause periodically to offer a chance for students to ask something, but only offer a few seconds long window for a student to speak up. Interpreting this atmosphere as signal that the professor you stay silent all lecture is often an inaccurate and harmful interpretation.

I want you to imagine what it’s like for a professor to teach a class. Imagine standing in front of a room of people, few of whom look like they care about what you have to say. You are required to speak on the topic for 80 minutes, regardless of whether the students care or not. When students don’t care about the lecture, it is harder for the professor to care about the lecture. A disinterested professor just makes the students even more disinterested; it’s a vicious cycle. By asking questions, you’re showing interest in what the professor has to say, which makes them feel like they are not wasting their time and yours. By asking questions, you’ll gain an improved understanding, and motivate your professor to show more interest during lecture.

If you feel like lectures leave you with a shallow understanding of the subject material, stop taking notes and start asking questions.

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