Taking Notes

The last two times I’ve taught a regular classroom course on software engineering, I’ve had students make up the lecture notes and assignments. Instead of creating PowerPoint slides and posting them on the web, I’ve lectured with chalk and a blackboard. In each lecture, a group of 3-4 students have been responsible for turning what I say into a wiki page, which then counts toward the 5% “writing requirement” of their course grade. I’ve done the same thing with assignment: after the whole class spends classroom time discussing what should and shouldn’t be in scope, a team of students writes it up and posts it for comment and clarification.

I’ve been pleased with the results, but unfortunately managed to misplace my links to the papers that gave me the idea of trying this. I’m therefore grateful to Brock MacDonald, of the Academic Writing Centre at Woodsworth College, for sending the following:

The most thorough empirical studies of student note-taking were published in a series of papers in the 80s and early 90s by K. A. Kiewra, alone and with various collaborators. They found that students who made and studied their own lecture notes achieved consistently better test results than students who studied from notes they were given. An interesting wrinkle is that students were found to do best of all when they were given a lecture topic outline or matrix of some kind to fill in with their own detailed notes---in other words, student note-taking that's framed or guided by limited input from the instructor leads to better results than either a) students making notes completely on their own (though this gives the 2nd best results) or b) students being given the lecture notes and not making notes of their own at all (which gives the poorest results). Empirical evidence for the value of students writing their own assignment specs is harder to come by, because it's less amenable to direct testing (like most aspects of teaching writing)--the support is more qualitative than quantitative, hence more open to question. The idea most often comes up as part of discussions of critical-thinking- and active-learning-oriented writing pedagogy, e.g., in Peter Elbow (his book Writing Without Teachers and many articles) and John Bean (his book Engaging Ideas); both Elbow and Bean refer to quite a bit of supporting research, though as I said it's mainly qualitative. The value of students developing the skill of formulating good questions in general (i.e. not only in the context of devising assignments) is also supported in some of the literature on learning objectives and outcomes, e.g., in several articles by Mike Carter, some of which present case studies that show the benefits of building this skill into entire course and program curricula.