Reading (and note-taking) is an Extreme Sport

In class today, we discussed changing our policy for handling technology in the classroom.

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Video still from M. Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today

This was a conversation sparked by an article posted by our discussion leaders this week about Clay Shirky and his experimentation with banning laptops, tablets, and phones from his classrooms. This was not, as some of you assumed, a response to your use of technology in comm200. We’ve spent nearly all of our class time so far discussing digital media in everyday life, and reflecting systematically on our own personal use. We wrapped up today by talking applying those observations to the classroom.

Overwhelmingly, you voted to keep the policy the same–23 of you. As a reminder, it goes a little something like this:

Technology in the Classroom

Use of technology in the classroom is encouraged! Bring laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc. Use note-taking software; use bibliographic software; use the Internet. Class topics are not bound to lecture, discussion, and the room we are sitting in. Take your discussion, questions, exploration online – look up definitions and more information as we discuss and share that with the class. Use the class wiki to discuss, post helpful definitions or outside articles. Use Twitter to post class related comments (use #comm200 to mark your class-related tweets). With laptops, smartphones, tablets and other communication devices, you have a world of resources to help you learn – use them!

A Warning: Be respectful with your use of technology. Using technology is a skilled literacy and is a privilege – do not take advantage of this privilege. If you have a laptop or smartphone in front of you, expect to be called on to look up additional information. The presence of technology in the classroom does not give you an excuse to be physically present in the room but intellectually absent. If you are not using your technology as a learning tool relevant to this classroom, put it away. Technology can be a distraction to you, me and your classmates. You are here to substantively add to a community of learning. Texting under the table, using headphones to listen to music, messages or videos, giggling at Facebook status updates, chatting, etc. during lecture, discussion, workshops, or any other in-class activity is rude! If I suspect that you are not using your laptop, smartphone, or whatever as a learning tool, I will call you out in class. Each time I have to call you out for using technology inappropriately in class, your participation grade will drop by a whole letter grade. If I have to call you out a second time you will be asked to leave the class. If I call you out a third time your technology privileges will be revoked entirely.

For perspective, 5 of you suggested a complete ban–mostly to prevent what Shirky calls the “second-hand smoke effect” in which a person without a laptop may become distracted by others around them being distracted. 10 of you want the professor to regulate computer use, either by constant monitoring and calling people out in a kind of public shaming that frightens everyone into shaping up, or by imposing time limits. I’m not sure this is realistic or helps you develop the self-regulating skills you’ll need once you leave the classroom setting, and I don’t want to spend my classroom time policing. This is a tough balance. One person suggested that technology use be allowed, but not encouraged, which is intriguing…

The most common refrain in your responses was some allusion to note-taking, and more importantly, the fact that you don’t know how to do it without a computer! Computers are great tools for note-taking; there are lots of great apps. But installing an app for taking notes doesn’t mean you know how to take good notes. No app can take notes for you, or teach you how to do it. It’s a skill you develop that an app will aid you in doing.

Since this was such a common remark in your writing about technology policies in the classroom, I thought I’d share some tips on good note-taking.

Reading (and note-taking) is an extreme sport! 

It takes practice to learn to read, to read carefully, to read critically, and to process what you’ve read. The more you read, the easier it will get. Use some of the tips below to help you develop your own strategy for note-taking while reading or listening to a lecture.

Sometimes you just need a good system.

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The Cornell Note-taking System is a great way to write notes about lectures and readings.

You should be reading (and listening) critically to understand and synthesize (as opposed to reading for directions or to find specific answers).

When reading for understanding, consider:

      1. what is the writing about (preview the article – skim the intro, conclusion, read notes previous reader have left)
      2. what is the author attempting to answer. Write a one sentence summary of the author’s main point.
      3. what important terms are used (which are unfamiliar to you – look them up to provide a definition if one cannot be found – implicitly or explicitly – in the text)
      4. what answer does the author give to the question posed? And/or what is the support given for this answer – what are the reasons the author thinks this is the right answer, or what is the evidence given to support the claim the author makes?
      5. by stating these things, what questions has the author surfaced (in your own mind or explicitly stated in the article)
      6. how does this relate to your own experience? Have you done this before, have you thought about this before? Is this entirely new to you? Does it remind you of something?

When reading critically:
You will be reading to possibly uncover flaws in the authors argument.

      1. Read for understanding. You must understand the material before you can begin to critique it
      2. Determine the evidence
      3. Determine the authors assumptions
      4. Determine your own opinion about the topic – do you agree, disagree, not sure? Explain the points you would make to question the claim the author has made – whether one side or the other, or just weighing options. Provide reasons why you would agree or disagree (or both is you cant decide)

Tips for taking notes:

      1. Read section headings and introduction and conclusion paragraphs before you mark anything in the text!
      2. Write down what you think the main idea is
      3. Make a list of questions you expect to find answered that will support the main idea – this way you have a self-guided tour prepared before you even start reading – you can remind yourself what to look for as you read
      4. Read whole chunks of text before you highlight/underline. That way you will have perspective and context for the important piece of text you will highlight
      5. WRITE IN THE MARGINS! Rephrase topic sentences, list details in your own words so they are easier to find and easier to summarize later
      6. Highlight/underline: use 2 colors – one for main ideas, one for details (or underline with one line for main ideas and 2 lines for details)

How to Read a Book is a blog post written by an academic on his own process for reading.

This Strategies tipsheet will give you ideas for strategies to use before, during and after reading.

Listen in on how grad students discuss their strategies for getting through the piles of reading they tackle.

Don’t be afraid to skim.

Looking for a challenge? Pick one class in your schedule next semester for which you will take notes only on paper. Since it is just an experiment, you don’t have to like it, and you can always go back to using a computer later.

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