Sunday, October 21, 2012


Last week, I was presenting my freshmen comp students with examples of how to organize their comparison/contrast essay.  I wrote a couple of detailed outlines on the board, illustrating methods they might choose, with examples. 

About halfway through, I noticed that most of them were just staring at me.  There I was, showing them step by step on the board exactly how to organize their papers, which are worth fifteen percent of their final grade, and they were just looking at me, all glassy-eyed. 

I paused for a moment, then said, "You realize that I'm not just doing this for my heath, don't you?  I'm showing you how to organize your essay. I told you when we started class that you'll need to understand and refer to this template when you start writing it."

More staring.  I put the chalk down.

"Why aren't you guys taking notes?  Do you expect to just remember this a week from now, both of the organizational templates I’m presenting, as well as the examples of how to organize the interior paragraphs?"

All of a sudden there was rustling, a flurry of activity, notebooks being opened, etc.  Some students were obviously doing this because everyone else was, but some looked a bit sheepish. 

One student said, "Well, I'm never sure what I should write down."

(The answer in her case is, to never write anything down.)    

I looked at them.  "I have a fool-proof way that will tell you exactly when you should be taking notes."

They looked back at me, curious.  I relished the long, expectant pause.

"My mouth is moving," I said, and then I went back to discussing the outline on the board.

Freshman need to get in the habit of taking down everything.  They're not experienced enough to pick and choose.  They just need to write, write, write.  Write down notes on everything that happens in class.  Some of it will end up being useless, of course.  But they can't know that unless they can have their notes to look over, so they can figure out what's relevant and what isn't.  They come to us entirely incapable of discernment.     

This is not entirely their fault.  They're used to their high school teachers teaching to the test.  "THIS IS IMPORTANT" the high school teachers say.  Those same teachers give them a study guide with everything bolded that needs to be bolded.  Others give them the test ahead of time. 

But college doesn't work like that.  Or at least not consistently.  I don't give my students study guides.  I could, but I don't.  I think they're counterproductive.  Students need to take notes on class lecture and discussion, and not just passively sit there waiting for the professor to hand them something that tells them what they're supposed to know.  I always tell them that an essential part of studying for a test is preparing their own study guide, which is in part a product of a meticulous review of their own notes. 

And still they sit there, not taking notes.  And still they screw up.

And fuck 'em. 


  1. Or, at the very least, write down everything that the teacher writes on the blackboard.

    My standard joke is that I'm not writing on the board simply to exercise my manly right bicep; I'm writing things on the board because they're important--so students should copy what's right in front of them.

    Some do, others don't.

  2. "They come to us entirely incapable of discernment."

    Many leave the same way. Not really our fault, we just give them a chance and point them in the right direction. After that, it's up to them.

  3. I have a clause in my syllabus that students are expected to take notes.

    A colleague has criticized me for it publicly. "You can't make them do that! You need to lighten up and stop treating them like children!" he exclaimed.

    This criticism came during a grade appeal meeting regarding the complaints of 2 under-achieving students who *thought* they deserved higher grades. The irony was lost on my fucktarded critic. He failed to grasp that too many students screw up certain assignments because they take shitty notes (or none at all) when we cover the topics in class. I had seen it happen every semester I used those assignments before and knew that's what went awry.

    Nope, not their fault. For people like him, it's NEVER their fault.

  4. It's sad to say this, but last year I began creating a note-taking assignment in my courses. Depending on what I'm teaching, I either give them a very well-structured lecture and require them to submit their notes to me for a grade, or I assign a reading and ask the same.

    Before embarking on this lecture-or-reading note-taking assignment, I give a lecture on note-taking skills.

    Depending on class performance, I sometimes do this two or three times in the first month of class. Occasionally, the first time is successful but often they need a repeat lesson.


  5. Yup, fuck 'em! I've looked at a student and said, "Simpering Sam, you need to write this down." And Simpering Sam has refused to do so. And lo and behold, Simpering Sam flunks that portion of the midterm, even when I've announced it will be on the midterm. If Simpering Sam doesn't care, that's Simpering Sam's fault...

  6. I give out study guides, especially in my intro classes. They are very long study guides. Basically any student that uses them will do a very through review of the textbook chapters AND my lectures AND the outside readings.

    1. So why don't they just review the textbook, their lecture notes (and your powerpoints, if relevant), and the outside readings? I have to admit, I've never understood the phenomenon of study guides (perhaps because I teach skill- rather than content-focused classes, but/and never encountered such a guide as an undergraduate. Some professors gave out lists of essay questions from which the ones that appeared on the exam would be chosen, or something along those lines, but we were still expected to assemble the information to answer them). But I'm not blaming you for giving them; I realize that students expect it, and if I taught content classes, I'd probably have to figure out how to create them.

    2. I give out study guides that say, essentially:

      The exam will be on Friday, October 13, during the regular class time in the regular classroom. It will cover:

      pages 1-600 of Textbook 1,

      pages 200-350 of Textbook 2,

      and pages 300-400 of Textbook 3.

      In other words, I give the information that a generation ago was listed in what we called a "syllabus."

      When I hand it to them, I say, "Here, this is a study guide." It works great.

    3. In my detail-centric field, we hand out a study guide that has three or four items on it for each of the lectures that will be on the exam. Most of them begin with "Explain in detail..." It's pages long and causes weeping.

    4. CC: good question. By devising a wide study-guide I hope to encourage them to review more than just my notes. I also give it out because I want the students to see how much I expect them to know. The intro classes where I use them are made up of freshmen majoring in my subject or upperclassmen from other majors. In both cases I suspect that they are still expecting some sort of variation of the high school courses they took in my area that spoon-fed them. By giving them such a broad, all-encompassing study guide I can drum it into them that they're expected to learn a lot of material. Also, I want to eliminate a possible excuse--- "I did bad on my tests because Dr. MAM didn't pass out a study guide!"

      In my upper division classes when they ask for a study guide I tell them "I do, it's called a textbook."

  7. I give study guides to my high school students. Like MA&M's, they are long, and consist mostly of short-essay type questions that take a great deal of effort for diligent students to work though. If the students haven't taken good notes, they're not going to be able to do much with the study guide. Later in the year, I have them create their own study guide together in class.

    I see nothing inappropriate about guiding students' attention toward the larger concepts that they need to master. I think the study guides encourage better note-taking. Further, they allow me to demand much more organized, thoroughly-articulated and well defended answers on the test.

    An added benefit to study guides is that it makes post-test matters much easier for me. Students complain that a question was unfair? Sorry, bud, it was right there on the study guide. Tell me what you find unfair. (Silence.) Parents complain that my test must be "too hard" because Suzie's not doing well, and she is a perfect model of angelic study habits? Well, here's the study guide she had a week prior to the test, and here's her shitty answer. (Parental silence. The best kind).

    1. I see nothing inappropriate about guiding students' attention toward the larger concepts that they need to master. I think the study guides encourage better note-taking. Further, they allow me to demand much more organized, thoroughly-articulated and well defended answers on the test

      So much this. As much as it chaps my ass to hand out a study guide, and as loudly as my inner-voice protests with "but my professors didn't give ME a study guide," I've found that providing one allows me to set the bar much higher for grading their answers. And I don't really tell them what is going to be on the test as much as how to approach the questions (i.e. I want to see 4-5 complete sentences that define the thing and then tell me how we discussed it in class and how you see it playing out in the stuff we read). I just got tired of reading bluebooks and bluebooks of crap.

      It still galls me though.

    2. I like study guides for the same reason- much less post-exam whining. If I gave you the question ahead of time to ponder and analyze, then you have no right to complain when a similar question appears on the exam. Also, many students don't know how to effectively use the study guide so it doesn't do much to improve the overall grades.

  8. Personally I think study guides encourage students to be lazy. They don't go back to their own notes if you give them a study guide, so giving them one doesn't encourage them to take good notes. It might have when I started teaching more than twenty years ago, but it won't now. They're taking that study guide and they're going to the internet. They go to the internet anyway but at least I'm not dropping a line of breadcrumbs for them. I'm not handing them their search terms. They might at least have to look at their notes for that.

    Students also have very legalistic minds when it comes to their grades. They consider a study guide an implied contract as to what will be on the test. You can tell them it's not, but they will think this regardless, and they will blame you if you put anything on the test that isn't stated explicitly in the study guide. No, it's not logical. But they will.

    As for students complaining the test is "unfair," I tell them about the grade breakdown, including the highest score. If at least 10% get an A, the test is fair. And if no one does, I would consider curving the test.

    This has never happened, however. A couple of kids at least always get a 95 or better.

    1. The only success I've had with students learning to take notes is when I've taken a class period to have them design their own study guides.

    2. That is why I put a disclaimer at the top of my study guide! Once a student made that claim that I messed her up by giving a study guide that "only had 50% of what was on the exam on it" I thought that was pretty generous. So I apologized and said I would never want to disrupt her education so I would not give out any more study guides for this class. It was SO SATISFYING when the rest of the class made her come to me and grovel for a study guide. I still said "NO." but it was great to see her get reamed by her peers!

  9. I only give study guides in my lit courses, and they mostly consist of a breakdown of types of tasks (passage identification/explication, short essay, defining terms) rather than anything more concrete than that.

    Oddly, this seems to satisfy them.

    I was also a philosophy major as an undergrad, and both of my professors gave a study guide that consisted of every possible essay question that might be asked, and the only way to prepare for the exam was to answer each of the questions in as much depth as possible, as CC pointed out above. I don't know how many of my classmates actually did study that way, but I know that since philosophy was harder for me than literature, I took advantage of the opportunity.

    I agree with Stella's point above about the legalistic aspect, which is why my study guide is suitably vague, and says that the exam will cover what we've read so far.

  10. The irony here is that Dean's could use this as "evidence" that the classroom is not being managed properly.

    Not saying anything about you Stella, just pointing out how fucked-up the system can be.

  11. I've been going back and forth on this in my head for a while.

    On one hand, serious studies have been done to show that attentive students learn class material better if they're not distracted by note-taking.

    On the other hand, I see students staring at me with cow eyes.

    I want to yell at them all to take notes, but ultimately I come down on the side of treating them like adults. Mild suggestions now and then, reminding them that they are making the decision not to take notes, and I hope it works out for them, since not all the material is in the textbook.

  12. These are the students who email you the night before a test (always a Sunday night, too) to say that they're studying for the test and could you tell them what's going to be on it? And then when you don't answer (as you shouldn't), evaluations read: "NEVER answered emails!" Or if you answer with "the class is what's on the test": "REFUSED to help students!"

  13. My strategy has evolved over time.

    I was initially very resistant to study guides, because I never got them as a student, and when I was a grad student and TA at a top-tier research university, the students didn't seem to expect one. It was similar at the liberal arts college where I adjuncted for a few years while in grad school.

    Here at Tier 3 state university, however, students expect study guides the way they expect wireless internet. If you don't give one, you'll have to put up with hours of whining, or questions about, "Will this be on the test?" I started giving study guides, and students were happy, even though many of them seemed to pay little attention to the guides, if their exams were any indication.

    Now, I've developed a two-tier system. I give a study guide for the mid-term and then, in the first class meeting after the mid-term exam, I tell them that there will be no study guide for the final. I tell them that they should now have a good idea, based on the first half of the semester, the study guide, and the mid-term exam, of what they need to do in order to do well.

    I tell them that they should try, as they go through the rest of the semester, to assemble their own study guide, and that they should take notes (in class, and when doing the reading) that will be comprehensive enough to cover all the important issues and provide a good basis for studying at the end of the semester. For the most part, the students seem to consider this a fair compromise, although there is still some grumbling.

  14. Stella wrote: "All of a sudden there was rustling, a flurry of activity, notebooks being opened, etc."

    Yeah, why does this happen well into the class period? Do they not expect to be taking notes every day?

    I often start with an announcement, like that the quiz has been pushed back one day, and take questions about the reading and current assignment. Usually the same A students ask a couple of well-informed or severely confused questions, and either way I consider my time answering them well spent for everyone. Even if I've used the board for that, the bandar-log* don't open their notebooks until after I click a PowerPoint slide. It's noisy and distracting and baffling, since they should realize that they'll be taking notes every Tea-Partying day.

    *unruly children, from Rumer Godden, after Kipling's monkey-people


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