Category Archives: Pedagogy

The Pen is Mightier

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard:  Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking 


Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

General Discussion

Laptop note taking has been rapidly increasing in prevalence across college campuses (e.g., Fried, 2008).  Whereas previous studies have shown that laptops (especially with access to the Internet) can distract students, the present studies are the first to show detriments due to differences in note-taking behavior. On multiple college campuses, using both immediate and delayed testing across several content areas, we found that participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes than participants who wrote longhand, thus hurting learning. Moreover, we found that this pattern of results was resistant to a simple verbal intervention: Telling students not to take notes verbatim did not prevent this deleterious behavior.

One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage,  which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand. We found no difference in performance on factual questions in the first two studies, though we do not dis-count the possibility that with greater power, differences might be seen. In Study 3, it is unclear why longhand note takers outperformed laptop note takers on factual questions, as this difference was not related to the relative lack of verbatim overlap in longhand notes. It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently. It is worth noting that longhand note takers’ advantage on retention of factual content is limited to conditions in which there was a delay between presentation and test, which may explain the discrepancy between our studies and previous research (Bui et al., 2013). The tasks they describe would also fall under our factual-question category, and we found no difference in performance on factual questions in immediate testing. For conceptual items, however, our findings strongly suggest the opposite conclusion.  Additionally, whereas Bui et al. (2013) argue that verbatim notes are superior, they did not report the extent of  verbatim overlap, merely the number of “idea units.” Our findings concur with theirs in that more notes (and there-fore more ideas) led to better performance.

The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even—or perhaps especially—when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking.  Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a lap-top than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.


B is for breathing

The recent study at UC Irvine on “student entitlement” and “grade inflation” has been bouncing around the internet. Here are a few takes from, Scholars&Rogues and The last of these is clearly the most thoughtful because the author examines the methodology used to arrive at astonishing claims such as “A third of students surveyed said that they expected B’s just for attending lectures”. In fact the statement which students were asked to consider was “If I have attended most classes for a course, I deserve at least a grade of B”– hardly the same as “just for attending lectures.” 

What’s interesting for our purposes is that here again we have a situation in which fact and value collide. Surely some people will take UC Irvine’s study as an opportunity to emphasize their own positions, many of which will be all too flat and reductive. Though I haven’t read all the responses to this study– one, we should remember, that we’d know absolutely nothing about were it not for the fact that someone in the mediascape thought it merited our attention– of those I have perused no one yet has made what seems to me to be perhaps the most obvious claim of all: students and the institutions they attend are a product of the wider social formation whose values and ideologies they both absorb and (albeit often in distorted form) reflect. In other words, if the culture at large reduces every question– personal, political, aesthetic– to the crude calculus of cost/benefit, if the very consciousness of the nation is totally structured by a kind of market logic, then is it any wonder students will respond in like fashion? 

This isn’t to let those who view college as a McDonald’s of the mind off the hook. Just to say that The University, as an institution, and certainly the society which produced it, share responsibility. 

Okay. Now here are the guidelines and prompts for your first paper:

The Guidelines

Paper #1, worth 25% of your course grade, is due 6 March at the beginning of class.  Choose one of the prompts below.  Articulate a coherent thesis—i.e., a non-trivial claim based on your analysis of the specific material referred to in the prompt—and substantiate it with well-organized, accurate, and richly detailed references to course material.

The paper must be double-spaced with normal margins.  Use a reasonable font (i.e. no courier or jumbo sized, crayola font).  The paper should be five to six (5-6) pages long, or a minimum of 1250 words.  I do not accept emailed or faxed papers. Pages numbered. Stapled. No title page. Name/course/date/title on the first page.

Note: Papers that do not follow the guidelines will NOT be accepted. No late papers barring some catastrophic, life-altering event (pulmonary embolism, earthquake, implosion of sun, etc.)

Your own thinking should constitute the core of the essay, but you are required to use outside resources to support your analysis which should be meticulously cited following MLA guidelines.  Citations of scholarly articles may be helpful, but you may not cite sources like Wikipedia, Sparknotes, and Cliff Notes; if you have questions about the appropriateness of any sources, talk to me or a university librarian.

The Prompts

1. It has been said that as a sub-genre of autobiography the American slave narrative not only narrates the life of an individual but represents the circumstances and ambitions of all enslaved African Americans. Formulate an argument based on this claim by comparing and contrasting the works of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass.

2. The subject of the first unit of this class is expressed in the phrase “getting free.” According to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs what does freedom mean? What is the relationship between the dream of freedom and its practical realities for those authors, and how do their views compare to some of the ways freedom is mobilized or discussed in contemporary American life?

3. Open Topic: write on one of the topics we’ve touched upon in class thus far such as Nat Turner (and, more generally, slave rebellions), John Brown, or minstrelsy. Be advised this is possibly the most difficult option for the first paper. Your topic will need to be approved by me.


Finally, for Friday, Feb. 27: Bring (and be prepared to discuss) a preliminary thesis for your paper and a working bibliography to class. 

Survey says


Thanks for taking the survey today. I’ve already looked them over and see some things I might do to make the course more effective. Here are some general remarks on what you told me:

Almost everyone noted the reluctance with which people speak in class. This was pretty much a universal theme: that nobody’s really talking and that’s kind of a drag. 

More than a few recommended the small-group strategy, though others were less enthusiastic. When you end up in a group where few or none of the other students have completed the reading assignment, someone wrote, you end up having to carry most of the weight. 

Two people admitted that they had not done any reading nor consulted the links posted in blog entries. To those anonymous students let me say that while your candor is admirable if, in the third week of the semester, you can’t be bothered to do the work then it seems unlikely you’ll do much if any of it in the months to come. You might save yourself the trouble and drop the course.

Two final remarks I feel compelled to address. 

In response to the question of how the course is going so far somebody wrote “Feels like something I took in highschool.” To which, were I overly-defensive, I might reply “And sometimes it feels like I’m teaching highschool.” But that would be unkind and almost always untrue. 

The second remark was interesting for the opportunity it gives me to speak on a theme integral to the course. One student wrote, again in answer to the question of how the course is going, “VERY LIBERAL, IGNORES ASIAN PERSPECTIVE.” There are 3 things I need to say about that.

1. I don’t identify as a political liberal (I’m guessing the student does not mean to call me an economic liberal, which is a different matter. Most so-called conservatives are economic liberals or neo-liberals, which is to say they believe in the myth of a self-regulating market which will solve all of humanity’s challenges). This is important to me because I don’t like my ideas to be misconstrued. If you need to pigeonhole me in terms of political identity then you should call me a marxist (note the lower-case ‘m’) because that is my intellectual tradition. I have friends who self-describe as revolutionary communist, anarchist, libertarian, and– in one notable case– Fourierist . And of course I know many Democrats and Republicans. As the semester passes, we’ll have a chance to investigate at least some of the incredibly variegated political history of the United States. If, at present, our political options sometimes seem to be confined to two remarkably similar choices, America’s political past is startlingly crowded with parties: Know-Nothing, Copperhead, Whig, Peace and Freedom, SWP, CPUSA, Wobbly,  Free Soil, Populist, and many others.

2. What we learn in this class will not be the product of an impossible– indeed, non-existent– purely neutral perspective. All knowledge is situated because knowledge is more than a mere aggregate of facts. Remember the distinction I made between fact and value? Knowledge incorporates values, especially in the Humanities. There’s simply no space outside of the situation we occupy from which to cast “fair and balanced” decisions. This is not to say that facts are not important. (And let me assure you my own ideological and intellectual commitments will never warp or misrepresent a fact in order to make a case.) Most thinkers would not argue for the fallacy of total objectivity because they understand that our comprehension of the world is always invested: with our personal experiences, our geographical and historical location, etc. Those who claim to be objective (note I don’t say “strive for objectivity”) are simply unwilling or unable to acknowledge that, as Howard Zinn once said, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.”  

3. In a few weeks we will be reading Maxine Hong Kingston‘s remarkable book China Men. For two to three weeks we will discuss Chinese-American history, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We will learn about the anti-Chinese pogroms which occurred in California in the 1870s, the effects of the Asian Exclusion Act, and think about the oddness of that all too capacious word “Asian”, a term that is supposed to describe not only Koreans but Sri Lankans, not just Phở  but naan.  We may even discover that Asia, as such, does not exist. 

Here is one hard change to the syllabus which is a result of the survey: we will not be reading Alexander Saxton’s The Great Midland. Though some students indicated the reading load was quite reasonable, others seemed a bit traumatized. By dropping this text we can focus on the others with greater attention. Instead, we will spend exactly one week on the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, the subject of the novel). I’ll give you on-line reading assignments by this Friday, the 13th of February.

Thanks again for helping. Remember to read through chapter 13 in Jacobs’ narrative. Or, if you’re fired up, finish it.