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  Robert Beard * Bucknell University  

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The Noteless Classroom

Robert Beard
Bucknell University


1. Introduction

The interactive on-line syllabuses for Linguistics 105 and Linguistics 110 at Bucknell constitute a project designed to use the intranet and internet to relieve students and the instructor of activities which interfere with classroom instruction, while providing hands-on activities unavailable in linguistic courses previously. It specifically focuses on reducing the onus of note-taking while virtually eliminating the necessity of writing and drawing on the blackboard. This is accomplished by including the instructor's lecture notes in the on-line syllabus then projecting them onto the board during class. Students may then refer to the notes before, after, and during class, when the instructor may also simply refer to them rather than scrawling them across the blackboard or disrupting class to distribute them in the form of handouts.

The intent of this innovation is to obviate the time spent in converting writing to speech and vice versa in class while increasing the amount of time available for conversations between student and instructor. The assumption is that students engaged with the instructor in close examination of the course content is the ideal classroom learning activity which should maximized and not interrupted by extraneous activities such as (re)archiving the content of the lectures. Writing notes while engaged in a conversation with the instructor divides the student's attention between following the lecture and taking notes, just as lecturing and writing on the blackboard divides the instructor's attention. Both demand loss of eye contact and focus on the on-going conversation in favor of note or blackboard presentation. The purpose of the experiment, therefore, is to refocus the classroom experience on learning by removing the demands of the penmanship and stenography of the traditional classroom.

2. The Problems

The problems addressed by the interactive on-line syllabus extend beyond the shifting of attention back and forth between lecturing and board-writing, on the instructor's part, and between listening and note-taking, on the students' part. Lecturing to teen-aged note-takers is not an efficient means of transferring knowledge in the first place. While taking notes efficiently, students have to make dozens of decisions during class as to the importance of the various points made by the instructor. They have to capture just the right phrases in their notes. If they fail in these two tasks, they will make errors studying for examinations and judgements in future studies. This is the major reason why instructors use the blackboard, in fact.

The best way to transmit information to students is to simply flesh out lecture notes and publish them for students to read, something many of ultimately do in our books and monographs. The classroom is not the best means of transmitting information; it is much more amenable to exploring the implications and applications of information already conveyed, pushing beyond that information, and checking students individually for their comprehension of the information. This is the traditional Socratic method and my assumption is that it is the ideal use of classroom meetings, since it is one of the few classroom activities requiring the presence of a human mentor.

Another drawback of dependence on note-taking and blackboard script is that it undermines examination and evaluation. The instructor can never be sure how much of a grade is attributable to comprehension of the course content and how much to stenographic skills. Examinations themselves present a wide array of well-known problems. Even the best testing design may disadvantage students who have mastered the concepts of the course, even those who can apply those concepts to the work he or she is doing, but who are simply bad stenographers. The entire class may be disadvantaged by an instructor who uses the blackboard poorly. Removing these instrumentalities of the teacher-student colloquy should at least extenuate this inequity, if not obviate it altogether.

3. The Solution

The centerpiece of the new approach to the problems caused by the interference of writing in the classroom is the on-line interactive syllabus. The entire syllabus for the course is on-line at all times and contains interactive learning aids of various sorts: graphic animations, ShockWave presentations, self-administered exercises and moot testing, electronic flash cards, and web links. None of these teaching aids are available in any non-computerized media readily available to usual teachers. More particularly, the syllabus contains links to all the instructor's lecture notes, which include all the examples, graphics, and other illustrations previously distributed in class via the blackboard, handouts, or mixeds technology. The notes, with all the instructor's examples and diagrams, are available to student around the clock seven days a week before and after the lecture. Students may rely on them in whole or in part as a source of their outline of each lecture.

These notes are also available during the lecture for they are projected behind the instructor during the class period, relieving him or her of the necessity to write examples and diagrams on the blackboard or fidget with overheads, handouts and videos. The result is that students and faculty focus on each other and the course content for the entire class period -- there should be no misreading the blackboard, no losing track of the discussion because of note-taking, fewer if any errors in note-taking.

The lecture notes are the focus of this informal project since research has shown that note-taking is an important part of the learning process. The projection of notes during the class period is designed to offset the disadvantage of losing this aspect of the learning process. Relieving students of any stenographic responsibility should allow them to follow lectures and discussions more closely, without losing track. It should also equalize the advantage of good note-takers over others, making the examinations more reflective of learning and less of stenographic ability. Reducing the instructor's use of the blackboard should also contribute to the cohesion of the dialog between him or her and the class. More learning should take place and that learning should be more accurate.

4. Research on Note-taking

The research has distinguished two functions of note-taking: encoding, the process of note-taking itself, and external storage, the reviewing of notes taken before recall. In the 61 studies reviewed by Hartley (1983) and Kiewra (1985) of how encoding alone affects test performance and/or recall, 35 found encoding to facilitate recall while 23 found no significant difference between note-takers and non-note-takers and 3 reported listening without note-taking led to better recall. Some research has revealed a 'generative' benefit of the note-taking activity itself in organizing information and associating it with previously acquired knowledge. However, since notes are generally taken during a lecture when the note-taker's attention is divided between writing and following the lecture, note-taking also interferes with the ability to listen and interpret information accurately.

The benefit of external storage, reviewing self-generated notes, however, is well-documented. In the 32 studies reviewed by Hartley (1983) and Kiewra (1985), 24 found that students who reviewed their notes achieved higher on performance tests than those who did not review. The issue raised by the noteless classroom, however, is whether the notes that are reviewed need be self-generated or whether they may be provided by the instructor. Very little research on this problem has been conducted to date.

Kiewra and his colleagues (Kiewra 1989; Kiewra, DuBois, Christian & McShane 1991; Benton, Kiewra, Whitfill & Dennison 1993) have recorded greater benefits of self-generated notes than externally provided notes. They begin with a tripartite understanding of the note-taking and review process. They divided the external storage function further into encoding-plus-storage and external storage, where the former is reflected in self-generated notes and the latter refers to the use of notes provided by a substitute. Given the fact that encoding interferes with the listening process, one might expect the well-organized notes provided by the instructor to facilitate delayed recall beyond that of encoding-plus-storage. The results of Kiewra et al. suggest that while external storage is superior to encoding alone, encoding-plus-storage is superior to reviewing notes provided subsequent to the lecture by external sources.. Thus reviewing self-generated notes seems to overcome the interference effect of note-taking itself more than reviewing notes prepared by someone else.

Corkill, Glover, Bruning & Krug (1988), however, discovered that while presenting students with organized notes after a lecture does not reinforce recall as much as do self-generated notes, having the notes available prior to reading a passage or during the lecture does (see also Glover, Bullock & Dietzer 1990 and Snapp & Glover 1990). According to their principle of encoding specificity, cues present at encoding only or at retrieval only have less effect on memory than performance than cues available both at encoding and at retrieval. They specifically found that the use of advance organizers before and during lectures or before reading enhances recall after a significant delay (a week or more).

The instructor's notes are a type of advance organizer. In Linguistics 105 and Linguistics 110 the instructor's notes are available to students before, after and during each lecture. Students are free to take notes on their own (though the low ambient lighting required by projection makes long note-taking more difficult than in traditional classroom settings). Projecting the notes during the lecture, therefore, should not only reduce the interference of board-writing in lecturing, it should reduce it in note-taking as well, while providing students with a head start in understanding the lecture.

5. The Noteless Classroom: The Results

Since the noteless classroom at Bucknell is a pilot project, the evaluation thus far has been based on the instructor's impressions and student questionnaires distributed at mid-term and at the end of the semester, and a comparison of grades on three tests given to two groups taking the course with and without the on-line interactive syllabus. The instructor's clear impression was that an additional 10-15 minutes was freed for in-class discussion as a result of reducing the board-writing to virtually nil and that the material of the course was covered more completely and with more clarity. He was surprised to find that, unlike previous years, all lectures were completed on-time so that the course at no time fell behind the syllabus and that time was left over at the end of many classes for additional questions. This never occurred previously.

Student questionnaires showed that all students resorted to printing some part of the on-line syllabus. The first surprise was the discovery that only four of the 13 respondents used their own personal computer for accessing the syllabus and only one of those used the computer in their room all the time. Students were therefore less familiar with computers than anticipated. Although only half the students had printed out the syllabus by mid-term, by the end of the semester all students had printed out the syllabus itself. 67% of the students has printed out the lecture notes by mid-term and 77% had printed at least some of them by the end of the term.

85% of the respondents thought that the additional time spent in question-answer mode and discussion was spent wisely by the end of term and 69% thought that the question-answer mode was more effective than standard lectures with note-taking. The comments showed that two students in the course were aware of the research on note-taking. This might explain why only 4 of the 13 final respondents (of the 18 enrolled in the course) took no notes at all. All 13 respondents reported taking fewer notes than in other classes. An interesting response of students was that a few students printed out the notes before coming to class and added their notes to them. This may indicate familiarity with the note-taking and advance organizer research for it is often based on this technique.

Finally, the average grade went up from 1996 to 1997 by .25, from 3.25 (the Bucknell average) to 3.5, despite a doubling of enrollment (from 8 to 18).  Since there were no controls on the two groups, other factors may explain this difference.  However, it is, superficially at least, encouraging rather than discouraging.

6. Absenteeism

A natural worry about placing notes on line is that students will stop attending class, assuming that they have all the information that they need to pass the course. Why come to class to take notes that are already on line?

It is a reasonable conclusion. If the course is a complete on-line courses, with exercises, homework, lecture notes and quizzes on line, then in-class lectures do become less important. Cynthia Whitsel (1998) recently pointed out that "[t]he same-time, same-place learning environment is being displaced by the anytime, anywhere learning model." The whole purpose of Web courseware is to put the student more in control of his or her education, providing them with richer resources at home. If we accept this as a purpose of web-based course materials, students will be spending more time on line and consequently will have less time and reason to attend class.

For this reason it is important for the instructor to determine how the additional time available for face-face classroom interaction is spent. This will require a new type of thinking, a new kind of imagination. The logical use of class time is for deeper discussions of the material learned outside class. However, class meetings might well be reduced and used as reviews. So long as learning is occurring as reflected in quizzes and examinations, absenteeism is nothing to concern the instructor; indeed, it is to be expected.

7. Conclusion

In summary, then, the noteless classroom experiment at Bucknell failed in that it did not provide a completely noteless classroom. Note-taking, however, was reduced dramatically among all students taking the course. Research in educational psychology indicates that taking no notes in class probably results in lower memory retention and lower test performance. However, having the notes available before, during and after class does at least seem improve student understanding of the material and subsequent test performance. Projecting the notes in class does reduce the interference factor of both note-taking and board-writing, leaving significantly more time for discussion and answering questions. Students generally like having the information available in electronic form even if they themselves are not particularly computer-sophisticated. Finally, the idea of using a printed form of the instructor's notes as a basis for one's own classroom notes seems to be a good idea supported by the advance organizer research of Glover and colleagues.

The major advance of placing the instructor's lecture notes on-line with an interactive syllabus lies in the ability of the instructor to project those notes in class in order to reduce or eliminate board-writing. Since students print out the notes anyway, the computer does not provide them any advantage in this aspect of the on-line interactive syllabus over conventional hard-copy. Using the electronic syllabus to deliver the notes simply shifts the expense of the hard-copy notes from the academic department to the computer labs and the students with computers in their own rooms. However, the additional time saved in class by projecting the notes with their illustrations, examples, and graphics not only raises the professional level of classroom activities, but frees up significant amounts of time for discussion and question and answers.

Initial observation also suggests that projection of lecture notes raises the level of those discussions by reducing the interference factor of note-taking and virtually eliminating the distraction of writing to the blackboard, fiddling with projectors or shuffling handouts. The teacher neither has to pass out examples and illustrations, keep track of transparencies, or write extensively on the board. This means that this technique is most suitable for those courses based on conveying large amounts of information by nonverbal means. Courses in which information is conveyed in large part verbally will benefit little from electronic lecture notes.


Benton, S., K. Kiewra, J. Whitfill & R. Dennison 1993. Encoding and external-storage effects on writing responses. Journal of Educational Psychology 85.267-280.

Corkill, A., J. Glover, R. Bruning & D. Krug 1988. Advance organizers: Retrieval context hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology 80.304-311,

Glover, J., R. Bullock. & M. Dietzer 1990. Advance organizers: Delay hypotheses. Journal of Educational Psychology 82.291-297.

Hartley, J. 1983. Notetaking research: Resetting the scoreboard. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society 36.13-14.

Kiewra, K. 1985. Investigating notetaking and review; A depth of processing alternative. Educational Psychologist 20.23-32.

Kiewra, K. 1989. A review of notetaking: The encoding storage paradigm and beyond. Educational Psychology Review 1.147-172.

Kiewra, K. N. DuBois, M. Christian, A. McShane, M. Meyerhoffer, and D. Roskeley 1991. Note-taking functions and techniques. Journal of Educational Psychology 83.240-245.

Snapp, J. & Glover, J. 1990. Advance organizers and study questions. Journal of Educational Research 83.266-271.

Whitsel, Cynthia 1998. "Reframing Our Classrooms, Reframing Ourselves: Perspectives from a Virtual Paladin." Vision, April 1998., visited October 10, 1998.

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