Computers in the Classroom (Part 2)

I appreciate the feedback to the first post. I started this post as a reply to some of the comments but it became too long for a comment, so I made it a new post.

–I mark my exams. If I don’t know which notes were done by hand and which were done by computer, how can I generate a correlation? I don’t expect this to be strictly scientific and I think I can be objective enough. I don’t care which they use so long as they learn. My concern is that they may not actually be learning as well as they should/could.

–I agree with Tim that, ideally, the classroom should be more than data transmission. i fear that’s what students want to make it, hence the transcript. I discourage them from making a transcript. i encourage them NOT to regard the lecture as mere transmission of data but as a construct for understanding data. Naturally the lectures include data, sometimes quite a lot of it. I hope that by taking strategic and selective notes the student will be able to jog his memory when it comes time to review.

–As to assigning more reading – my students are laughing themselves silly just now! Don’t tempt me…

–To those who ask about recording lectures. My policy has been not to allow recording. I think Bob Godfrey allowed students to record his class which gave rise to the legendary “JK” notes. I don’t want that transcript floating about because I think it ultimately hurts the learning process. I want students to think, to memorize, analyze, and to demonstrate that they have a grasp of the great events, themes, persons, and ideas of the course.

I suspect that, if I allow them to record, that they won’t actually listen as closely the first time. Part of the goal of the course is to help students learn to listen analytically. I’m often disappointed how often students are unable to repeat what was just said. If, as I am wont to do, I break the invisible plane between lectern and the student desks/tables and start asking pointed questions about what I just said, I too often find that even though they’ve been typing away, the students haven’t really been listening to what was just said. They can’t summarize it accurately from memory. They have to look at the screen to see what they just typed.

–I wonder if all the stimuli to which they are subject (TV, web, email, cell phone, text messages etc) trains them that they don’t really have to pay close attention to anything. A lecture or classroom discussion becomes just another ephemeral bit of data in a constant stream.

–Then there is the phenomenon of students refusing to answer the questions asked in the exam. I’ve had students answer the questions that they consider more important. Sometimes students answer the questions that they hoped I would ask. I understand that phenomenon. The technical name for it is “lazy student syndrome.” That some students seem to think that they get to decide what they should learn makes me de Zengotita has a point. Students are convinced that they are the arbiters of what they should have to learn. When I demand that they learn what I think is important, we’re actually engaged in a kind of battle of the wills. They’ve been conditioned to think that they are autonomous “deciders” (to quote the president) so they don’t cotton to being told that they have to learn things the immediate value of which they cannot see. They don’t believe me when I tell them that someday they will realize the value of what they’re being made to learn and they will be glad I made them do it.

–I also suspect that students can’t or don’t distinguish clearly enough between what is important and what is ephemeral. For example, students who read assigned readings online do not seem to read them closely enough to learn the material. Because I’ve noticed this, I tell them to print out the assigned online reading but apparently only a few do because only a few are able to demonstrate that they’ve actually done the reading they tell me they have completed.

–The age of our students did drop by about 7 years on average in 2000, but that meant that generally academic performance has increased rather than decreased.  In 1997 I found it much more difficult to communicate to “second career” students the importance of learning about the medieval church. They seemed (again this is a broad generalization with lots of exceptions) to be impatient and sometimes a little anti-intellectual.

–My perception is that a significant percentage of our students have always come from non-Reformed backgrounds. That may have changed slightly in recent years, but that’s only a guess. In any event, it’s probably not the case that students were able to do better in earlier years because they came with a stronger church or theological background. It may be that students now come with a stronger background.

–It is also the case that I put more emphasis on student papers now than when I first started at WSC. Students who fail to perform basic functions (such as telling me what they intend to argue) fail and it is now impossible to fail the paper or the exam and pass the course. This has forced students to pay more attention to the paper and, in the zero sum game of student time, they have perhaps paid proportionally less attention to their exams. Perhaps I need to institute an “all or nothing” exam?  I probably can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) do it, but it would probably get them to pay attention in class.

–As to the current round of exams 14% of my Doctrine of God students aced the final exam. About 28% did well. That’s 42% of the class who I would expect to do quite well in their ordination trials. No one failed the exam (which is a little unusual) and most did reasonably well, so perhaps my expectations are unreasonable? It is true that the more often I teach a course the more familiar I become with it and perhaps that leads me to higher expectations? At the same time, I’m also clearer about what I’m saying and what I expect which makes things easier for the student, so it should balance out.

Part 3

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  1. I would suggest that having a full syllabus with complete lecture notes is the best solution. That way, students don’t need to worry about being furious scribes or fluent typists … They can listen to you talk, while underlining, making notes in the margin or on the opposite side of the page. They can actually participate in the process of thinking rather than processing transcribing (which is what notetaking is, no matter what the medium). It also saves time of the professor repeating himself for someone who is writing slower than someone else. To me, the classroom is not the place to let the student guess about what is important. You tell him what is important. That’s why you are the teacher and he is the student … you have been exposed to the material and as a result are in a place to tell him what is important.

    Having taken classes that had a full syllabus, I have concluded it is silly to do otherwise. I would be more inclined to skip an elective class if it did not have a full syllabus.

    When I have taken classes without a decent syllabus, I do use my laptop in order to be legible. It is not my favorite way to take notes, but it is the only way they will be of any use to me.

    But I have returned to my full syllabuses many times after the class has long been over and been glad that I wasn’t trying to take notes on my own. I learned much more because I was able to pay attention, I was able to interact while the class was being taught, and I have something still on my shelves that is far more useful than any notes I could have taken.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    One of my classes in undergraduate school has made me wonder for years if the problem might not be based on something else. This professor made copies of his lectures and handed them out to us to study each week. Class time was then spent discussing/arguing/disputing with the professor and each other the subject for that week. I personally learned more in that class than in almost any other class I’ve ever taken. It has always made me wonder about whether taking notes is the best use of class time (I don’t know for sure). Since taking that one class,having a professor read his lecture notes and having the students copy them by hand (or computer) has seemed to me to be asking the students to be sort of glorified photocopy machines.

    Just a couple of thoughts based on my classroom experience.

    Keith Mathison

  3. I realize that this comment is slightly off-topic, but I am really disappointed in your item about “second career” students. I am not disputing your observation that they are more difficult to teach and somewhat anti-intellectual, I am simply disappointed to hear it.

    Right now I have a very comfortable white collar job that pays pretty well, that is very secure, with plenty of perks and benefits, a retirement account, and gives me some opportunities for experiences very few other people will ever get. When I first felt God calling me into ministry, I had to wrestle with whether or not I was willing to give all of that up. Having not started seminary yet, I still wrestle with that, and with every raise and every promotion I get while waiting to come to WSC, it gets harder to give it up. I cannot imagine leaving all of this “successful lifestyle” (albeit the worldly kind) only to arrive at seminary and be unwilling to learn whatever the faculty deems important to my usefullness in ministry.

    When I was in high school and even in undergraduate studies, I often complained that there was no need to learn “this stuff” as I would “never need it anyway”. I have grown up to see the immaturity of such a point of view, and now if a professor thinks I need to understand the history of the church in the middle ages, I am not about to argue with him over it or dismiss it in my studies. It is really sad to hear that there are older students that haven’t seen the folly of that kind of thinking. As you said, there are exceptions to your observation, and I pray I will be one myself. If I believed for one minute, that I would arrive at WSC and be resistant to your teaching or anyone elses, then I would never drag my wife and three young boys across the country and place on them the burdens that they will surely bear for the next three years.

  4. Hi Larry,

    I had a prof in sem who did what you suggest and it made the lectures and the interaction redundant. I don’t need to hear AND read the same material.

    Hi Erik,

    We’ve had some great 2nd career students. My initial experience with them was a bit of shock. I think the culture of the school was different then. I haven’t had quite the same experience in recent years, even with 2nd career students. We’ve had some who’ve done a fantastic job. To point out just one, see Mike Brown (Christ Reformed Church, Santee). Sometimes 2nd career guys, having done other things, really appreciate the opportunity to study Scripture and theology and to fulfill their calling to ministry. Some I’ve known wanted to do that but couldn’t or were unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary.

    The good news is that you won’t be alone. You’ll have folks from a local congregation around you (and deacons to help if things get really tough) and there’s lots of help at the sem. You’ll be glad you did it.

    See you on campus.


  5. Interesting, Dr. Clark. I think studies have shown that hearing combined with visual actually increases retention and understanding, and that true in my case.

    But I would not recommend teachers just read their syllabus. I don’t like that approach. They should be making other comments, as my professors did, referencing other issues, highlighting certain points of emphasis, other resources, quotations, etc.

    Without a doubt, the classes in which I took my own notes have provided no useful lasting benefit to me. The notes are too disorganized and disjunctive, as well as illegible. The classes in which the professor provided a full syllabus where the outline could be discerned and the flow of thought heard as well as seen have provided immense lasting benefits that I can return to time and time again …

    So that’s my experience … for whatever it’s worth.

  6. Hi Keith,

    You’ve obviously never seen my lecture notes!

    I’m a big believer in discussion but every semester, in student evaluations, people complain that they don’t want to listen to what other students have to say. They want to hear what the prof has to say.

    I have sometimes thought about doing just what you suggest, but I’m not sure it would work well for my church history courses because they require the analysis and synthesis of a lot of material to which the students don’t have access and which, in most cases, they aren’t prepared to discuss intelligently. I think it might work well in an ST course. I’ll keep thinking about it.


  7. It may be helpful to give an outline of your notes at least, so that students don’t have to organize them while you’re talking; they can devote their time to content, not to organization. Dr. VanDrunen and Dr. Hart do this and I really appreciate it.

    I think that an outline would be good for both church history and ST courses.


  8. Hi Dr. Clark,

    I was in your MedRef class in the Winter 08. I’ve read your blogs on having a laptop in class taking notes and most of the comments. I’ve put some thought into this and have noticed from your blog AND the comments that two problems are addressed in response to your blogs. 1) The degree of learning rather than ‘transcribing’. 2) Laptops as a distraction either to the person using it (games, etc.) or to the peer taking notes by hand.

    1) I think that I speak for the ‘common’ folk that the reason why I use laptops is strictly only because of the amount of material that is being covered during lecture. For all the other classes including Pentateuch that I took last semester I used a pen. I think that it is best to use a pen and paper for all the reasons you have argued for in your blogs. I completely agree with you on that. Actually, for the first couple of weeks in MedRef, I tried to use a pen and paper knowing that what you said had very good reason to it. However, I could not keep up with the amount of material that was being taught in class. Let me re-phrase that. I could not keep up with the amount of the IMPORTANT material being covered in class. (I know that you think as students we should filter and write down what we think is important as we engage ourselves with the lecture). I thought a lot of what you talked about was important. That’s the thing. There is a lot of important material being covered in class. So I resorted to my laptop. With my laptop, I was able to type what I thought was the important material in the class (not only for a good grade, but what I thought personally was important for my edification). In response to better grades = hand notes, I can confidently say that if I had not had my laptop, I would not have gotten the A I received on your final or learned as much as I did (because I equate the grade to how much you have learned).

    Basically, what it comes down to specifically in the MedRef class is that there is a lot of IMPORTANT material to learn in a short amount of period of time. I understand that. This problem for me can be approached 2 different ways. 1) Listening and 2) Note taking. Personally, I like to just listen and not take any notes in class. However, with the amount of information we learn and its level of difficulty, notes are necessary to review after class to repeat in our minds of what we learned in class. Just because I listened to and understood the material, doesnt necessarily mean I learned it and definitely not memorized it for test purposes. So there is a sacrifice being made when I take notes. I’m sacrificing of what percent I can completely listen to and understand in class by not taking notes for the sake of getting the notes down so that I could review and memorize what we went over in class even though I might not understand it fully. Does that make sense? Personally…if we weren’t getting grades, I wouldn’t take notes at all but sit in, listen and TRY to absorb it all. But for test purposes, I cannot afford to sit in class and just listen. I must have notes to MEMORIZE. For example, in Pentateuch, the pace is slower and the students are able to absorb the material, ponder upon it, discuss it, and just write the key points. I won’t fall behind if I take hand notes. However, in MedRef, it’s a history class. It’s about facts. A different type of class. Much faster pace. In no way, am I criticizing grades or voting for MedRef over Pentateuch. I think its necessary to test someone on what he has LEARNED (not listened) the whole semester on the material that has been taught. But, I don’t have a photographic memory or even a decent memory at that, so though I may not fully understand it when it is being taught, the notes help me understand it better after AND help me memorize it.

    You can kind of compare it to a sermon. Some people take notes. That’s fine. I don’t because I don’t want to miss an iota the Pastor speaks. Now…what’s worse…missing some of the sermon or not being able to go back to notes and fully repeat some of the things he said? I don’t know. I’m not getting graded on how much I retained from the sermon so I would choose the former. For me, I don’t ever want to miss a word the Pastor speaks. Of course the analogy breaks down because it is the Word of God and so every word would be that much more valuable but the same could be said for those notes of the Word of God. To speak generally, both sermon and lecture are important and what one regards as being more valuable is different to the other. When listening to a sermon, hearing is for me. When listening to a lecture, reviewing the notes for understanding thoroughly and memorizing for test purposes is more important.

    2) Regarding distractions. I think that if it’s not for the laptops, you’re gonna have people doodling in class, sleeping, staring off into space, talking to each other, texting, etc. I don’t think laptops are that big of a distraction to myself more than zoning out. To other people, I think there are plenty of other things that are more distracting and the laptop shouldn’t be singled out as a ‘distraction’.

    In conclusion,

    I think that you should leave that choice of listening vs. note taking (via laptop) up to the student. I know for a fact that hand writing notes does not equal a better test score for me. By typing notes, I can actually listen to more of your lecture and not fall behind. I believe the decision of whether or not that student thinks he should listen and absorb or write down the notes to review later so he wont fall behind in class should be up to him since the students knows himself better than anyone else.


    With Much Grace,

    Your student.

  9. Sorry…i just wanted to add a little bit on that sermon example. I guess, if I were getting graded on the sermon I would take notes and if i was too slow to hand write them, I would use a laptop. Maybe then, I would learn a lot more from the sermon? Probably. Does that mean I would be sanctified more? I dunno. The pattern would point to ‘probably’. Now, we’ve got an issue. Laptops in Service? Or does that mean we’re taking the classroom more seriously than service? Ok…the last two questions are jokes with soem truth in it, but I just wanted to elaborate on the example of learning being emphasized by notes (whether by hand or type if you can keep up with the speaker).

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