Computers in the Classroom…Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

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?

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  1. At SBTS, I am a bit of an anomaly in classes because I still take notes by hand. I do think I learn better that way. To be honest, I think I am slower at taking notes via computer than by hand, though I am not by any means a slow typer. I’m not really sure how that works out.

    Also, diagrams and pictures are easier to draw than to find the right tools in Word or Open Office.

    The thing I hate most about computers in the classroom is all the noise from dozens of people clicking away while typing. It’s really distracting. That might be some ADD on my part though. Shiny things are also distracting. All in all- if it works for you, great. I will keep taking notes by hand, and transcribe those to the computer after class.

  2. Here’s my theory: the way students take notes is the way they best take exams. Because the exam is required in a hand-written blue book, this requires an extra step of adjustment for those who have taken notes on a computer throughout the semester. The theory that students “lose” information by taking lecture notes on a laptop needs to be tested with another variable: letting students take exams on a laptop. Since they have absorbed the information through this medium, it is possible that they may “output” the relevant data better through this same medium.

  3. I began seminary with a pen and looseleaf. Actually, my grades went up quite a bit when I started with a notebook computer in my third year. I was having a hard time figuring out what was important in the lectures and what wasn’t. When I started typing, I became so proficient that I could take everything down word for word. No more guessing about what’s important during the class time. There’s time to figure that out when doing review or study for the exam. Moreover, now as I look back over my electronic notes, everything still makes sense because the whole context is there. I can’t say the same for my looseleaf notes.

  4. hmm – I expect you have a much higher probability of your wisdom being transferred from academia into practicum by allowing e-notes. I wish I had the notes from my favorite professors in computable format. 🙂

  5. one solution is to simply allowing for a recording of the class lecture (perhaps available or distribute it on itunes, as many universities are now doing. that way the students can take hand written notes, and listen carefully without worrying about missing anything important. then simply download the lecture at their leisure.

  6. Dr. Clark:

    I am in agreement with you on this totally. My own experience doing research for papers is that when I handwrite my quotations and bibliographical information it sticks with me and becomes my own, so to speak. But typing or scanning material bypasses my thinking processes.

    I would be curious to see how your testing this theory turns out. If and when you do it, would you share that information on your blog?

  7. >The ease of the modern computer keyboard leads students to try to create a complete transcript.

    The modern computer keyboard on a laptop would _not_ encourage me to try to create a transcript. There are fundamental issues here, involved (I suspect) with how the whole text vs. visual thing.

    More thoughts later. Running hard up against time to go to work (which, today, is being computer support for a local school).

  8. I am not a very good typist and therefore am unable to transcribe lectures. However, I think that I take notes on my laptop in pretty much the same manner as I do taking notes by hand (i.e. in church, that one Med. Ref. lecture). There are a few benefits for me in having my notes on my laptop.

    1) A heck of a lot neater. I have decent handwriting, but into the second hour of a lecture it gets pretty bad, not to mention my hand gets tired.

    2) I always have my notes with me. I am constantly referring back to all my class notes and I am able to do that whenever I need.

    Finally, 3) I can search for keywords in the notes. I usually don’t remember when exactly a lecture was, but I can search my notes for a class and find the words I am looking for. This is huge and makes it so much easier to find the information that I need.

  9. I think I do better with computer notes. I used to handwrite my notes in undergrad, and now I type them on a laptop. I’d say I get better grades now, and my notes will be useful for the future, because I have them neatly saved on my laptop. Of course this could just be because I am more serious about my education the older and more mature I get.

    I think there are too many variables that are not being considered in this study, like the following:
    –Would it be a different result if the people taking notes on labtops could take their tests on a labtop?
    –Also, are those students who participated in the experiment for Med. Ref. simply doing better because they know they are participating in an experiment (i.e. a self-fulfilled prophecy effect)?
    –Could it also be that 10 years ago when students did better on the exams, that they were trained better by their churches in Bible-Theology?
    –I think the average age of students on campus has dropped since then as well, so perhaps the younger students are more illiterate in Bible-Theology than the older men that came in 10 years ago because they have not lived as long, and thus have not had the same amount of time to study Bible-Theology?
    –Or perhaps not as many people are coming in now with an undergrad degree that prepares them for Biblical and theological studies?
    –Or perhaps more students are coming into Westminster now that are not from Reformed backgrounds, such as evangelical, and thus the transition is not as smooth at learning the Reformed faith?

    These are a few of perhaps many other variables that would need to be considered in this study. In other words I am skeptical about the theory, or at least think that more needs to be considered.

  10. Skpeanig of tsraibnicg, it has been dnomestrtaed that as lnog as the itinail and fnial ltrtes of a word are crorect maennig is not lost. Insert FV joke here about initial, final and lost.


  11. Two things:

    (i) If you decide to run your test, you would need to make sure that the marker did NOT know which students used paper and which laptops. If the marker knew all you’d prove is the marker’s view of which is best!

    (ii) The whole “taking notes” concept – at least when it means something that tries to be something like a transcript – is flawed, as is the sort of lecture that can be transcribed. That’s the “lecture” as data transfer, a good book is a more effective and cheaper method! The “lecturer” should assist students to learn to do stuff with the data – undedrstand, use and manipulate the information… not simply “transmit”…

  12. Just last Thursday NBC re-ran The Office in which Michael Scott lectured Ryan’s MBA class. When the question came, “How can a paper company survive in this increasingly paperless world?”, Michael waxed eloquent about paper vs. computers, capping his invective off with “write that down!” At which point, the camera panned to a lecture-hall full of students eagerly typing into their laptops.

    Dr. Scott, I completely agree with you, although as a (ex/associate) Math Prof, I think the case is stronger in math classes; regular word processing is not sufficiently flexible/responsive for symbols, greek letters, diagrams, etc. You just need to be able to have the freedom to scribble on blank paper. Maybe data entry technology will catch up eventually (see Tom Cruise’s computer in Minority Report), but it’s certainly not there yet.

    My dad happens to be a WSCAL student, and I know he (and some others) use .mp3 recorders to capture entire lectures (only with professors’ permission), and part of his post-lecture study process is to make a near-transcript-level outline from the recording. Do you think students would be more likely to disengage from their laptops if they knew they could go back and listen again?

  13. Dr. Clark,

    I think RubeRad might be on to something. I am preparing to come to WSC myself in the near future, and I purchased a laptop not too long ago specifically for use in school. However, I got my undergrad ten years ago and none of us had laptops then. I am by no means a typist, and I have come to the realization that there is no way in the world that I will be able to take lecture notes on this thing. On the other hand, I wish I could because as others have noted here, I would like to be able to go back later and do keyword searches for things I think a certain professor said, or be able to remind myself of the context of a thought from the notes.

    When I come to WSC, I think I will plan on leaving the computer in the bag and taking out a notepad, and I really would like to have the .mp3 recorder option. The downside to that plan, is that I really do type slowly and to go back and transcribe the lecture from an audio file (for searchable transcripts) would burn up a lot of study time, though it might help with retention of the material. And I think I would be cheating if I used someone else’s transcription unless there was a single electronic transcript available to the whole class.

    I think RubeRad is right again in suggesting that students might disengage from the laptops if they knew ahead of time that they could listen to the lecture again later. If I had (or made) a transcript to go over again later, the transcript would always get far more use, likely for years to come.

  14. The problem you are exploring seems analogous to an observed difference between film and digital photography. With digital photography, it is not unusual for a photographer to snap off several hundred photos of each and every event, often leading to information overload and necessitating the intervention of digital asset management tools. By contrast, a film photographer learns to emphasize composition and framing, making each shot count, producing far fewer images as a result, but if skilled, a far richer assortment, having learned to wait for the right lighting or the right pose.

  15. Student at RTS Jackson, Puritanboarder.

    I use a laptop to take notes. I think this is valuable for me now and in the future because I will have these notes close at hand in future ministry, whereas with paper or notebooks, I will have to go searching in my closet or filing cabinet every time I have to go find something. So in this sense it is definitely better.

    A danger in laptops is, however, using the internet during class if the internet is on.

  16. I believe that a laptop is an invaluable tool. This statement may vary among students though. When I attended seminary, I used a laptop for 2.5 years. It is a very handy reference tool. I can look items up and keep them with me when I travel.
    In re to the laptop usage/grading theory, I believe you may have something here. I wish that laptop users could engage in class more often than they due but I also can appreciate the desire fo the student to possess very accurate notes.

  17. Hi Andrew,

    Students do sometimes type out their notes later so they can access them electronically. There are technologies for doing this now (e.g., dictating them into a voice recognition program).

    Hi Wayne,

    Great to see you hear. Thanks for all you do at the PCA Historical Soc. What a great resource that is.


  18. Dr. Clark,

    I think you have an interesting hypothesis, and I would love to see where this experiment ends up. As a second year M.Div student, who has only had a laptop for 1 semester now, I have noticed both ends of the spectrum. I have noticed my initial engagement to be somewhat lagging when using the computer for taking notes, and it is evident in diminished class involvement and participation “in the moment.” This tells me my critical thinking skills have slowed down during lecture. However, I’m noticing that I am engaging with the material of the lectures over a longer period of time, and have it on my mind, as opposed to last year, when I had several key classes (i.e. Covenant Theology), but now, I struggle to remember just what was taught and why it was significant. I’m planning on sitting back in on the class next year, just to make sure I actually “get it.”

    So, I say all that to say, that from the perspective of a seminary student (who is a couple of years removed from undergrad, with a family [wife, two children]), sometimes the benefits of initial interaction are worth diminishing for the sake of long term engagement.

    Now, this also depends on the lecturer/Professor, and while I have nothing but good things to say about my own, there are certainly those who do a good job giving the big picture and synthesizing the wide array of mateiral, which would be a huge help in being able to interact with the material, rather than take it all down to be processed later.

  19. It took a while for me to get into the swing of taking notes by computer. I’m glad I switched to laptop though. I still benefit greatly when reviewing my typed notes, while my old handwritten ones I now find largely illegible. But I guess I’m not typical in that I can simultaneously engage in the lecture while typing full sentence and paragraph notes. But I’m not transcribing. I can’t type fast enough to do so. I write what I understand of the lectures.

    Of course, if the lecture goes too quickly, my memory can’t cope with all the incoming information while trying to synthesize the thoughts I’m trying to type, resulting in gaps in my note taking.

  20. You don’t need a computer to transcribe lectures. People can use short-hand, abbreviation, etc. to write down a lot of information in a short time. If you write down what you hear without thinking, it is as bad as using the computer to type down what you hear without thinking. The problem is not in the method, whether you use computer or notepad. The problem is not organizing/cleaning-up your notes after the class. The best time to do so is immediately after the class while your memory is still fresh – don’t wait until the night before the exam. Based on my own experience and others, those who clean-up their notes (whether handwritten or computer) after the class, with critical thinking and integrating reading materials, learn the most and proportionally perform better on the exam.

  21. To continue my previous post …

    Therefore, let us not impose a single method (i.e., hand-written) to everyone. Some prefer hand-writing their lecture notes; some prefer typing their lecture notes. Moreover, Prof. Estelle mentioned that a student didn’t take any notes in his class and still ace it, because that student has photographic memory (or audio-equivalent). The main point, as I mentioned in the previous post, is to digest and internalize your lecture notes. We are diversified yet unified in Christ. Let us not dictate on how one should take lecture notes in class. Thank you.

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