I’m developing a(n) hypothesis about laptop computers in the (seminary) classroom. My theory, based on my observations of college and seminary students since 1995, is that student reliance upon notebook/laptop computers for taking notes is not helping them to learn.
Since I began teaching at WSC in 1997 the use of laptop computers has become more common among students. Only a few students used them at Wheaton when I was there. When I first came here in 1997 most but not all students used them to take notes. Now, in a typical lecture, virtually all the students are taking notes by computer. At the same time computers have become more prevalent grades on short-essay mid-terms and final exams have dipped.
Can I prove a cause-and-effect relation? No, not yet. My theory is that students are so busy hearing the lecture so that they can transcribe it verbatim that they are not actually listening to what is being said. I theorize that the sound goes into their heads, through their finger tips, as it were, and onto the keyboards. As result, for some students, they seriously engage the material for the first time when they began reviewing their lecture notes.
Of course this means that instead of reviewing familiar material before an exam, some students are learning new material in the days leading up to the exam. I have other evidence that suggests that this theory may be correct. Last Spring I asked the students in Medieval-Reformation history to take notes by hand. Some even went so far as to buy a fountain pen from Steve Baugh! Those who took notes by hand said that they thought that they learned more and engaged the lectures more completely (i.e. they heard and analyzed them, made decisions about what was and wasn’t important to know) than they normally do when taking notes on the computer.
My concern isn’t the computer. My concern is that students listen and learn. The ease of the modern computer keyboard leads students to try to create a complete transcript. There is a transcript of some of Bob Godfrey’s courses floating around, named after the student to made it some years back, that even includes his jokes! Presumably one who takes notes by hand cannot transcribe everything. So he has to make a decision about what to write down and what to ignore. He has to prioritize and analyze information. As a result of this initial engagement with new material on the front end of the learning process, as it were, when he comes to preparing for the final exam he should be reviewing familiar material and refreshing his memory rather than learning material from scratch.
As a consequence of last Spring’s experiment–I confess I failed to follow through and have the handwritten note students mark their bluebooks so I could develop some sort of correlation–and as a consequence of grading this fall’s Doctrine of God exams, I think I am going to require my Medieval-Reformation students to take notes by hand, unless they can demonstrate to me that they can achieve the same level of initial engagement with the lecture material by using their computer.
What do you think?