How and when did you learn to take notes? I remember my seventh-grade social studies teacher, who lectured bell to bell every day. The only way to survive her course was to have a reliable, efficient method of taking copious notes on a daily basis. I quickly learned that outline-based notes, written in two columns down the page, works best to help me remember and organize ideas. I developed my own variant of shorthand, allowing me to write more in less time and essentially rendering my notes illegible to any of my peers. Though I may have been officially taught notetaking skills at some point in my early education, what I settled on using was a derivative of my own creation, adapted to meet my workflow and needs. To this day, I find myself almost unable to function if I cannot take notes in outline format. By contrast, one of my colleagues in my department,
Stacey Pigg, takes the most delightfully artistic sketch-based notes I’ve ever seen. To me, her notes look like a map and depict the flow of information just as clearly as they seem to record the information itself. Her sketches are quite a contrast to my boring, indented, linear documentation. I don’t have the drawing hand necessary to create order out of sketches like Stacy does, so her form of notetaking would lead to frustration and failure for me.

That individuation of process and product speaks to the diversity of learning styles, thinking patterns, and habits of mind that surely rival the diversity of student personalities. How do we teach students how to take notes, when the note taking process necessarily changes from person to person? How do we assess how successful our instruction was, when the output created by each student differs so substantially? Can we define in advance what, exactly, our students need to know, do, or try before arriving at The Solution™ that works for them?

In the standardized-test-driven world of today’s public education, state standards or student learning outcomes help ensure each teacher across thousands of schools knows what is expected of each grade level and each subject area. While these standards can unfortunately limit a creative teacher’s approach to the subject, they can also help focus a teacher’s efforts, ensuring coverage of important concepts, elements, or skills. If the learning outcomes align with what is tested on mandated statewide assessments, schools can determine whether students met the expectations of a given course. These high-stakes tests feed the accountability mantra of certain legislators and government officials, who expect to be able to measure what schools do and demand that schools predictably get students to learn the same material every time.

The story is quite different at the college level, where course descriptions maybe consistent throughout institution, but course objectives may not. Oftentimes, the instructor develops the course outcomes as an initial step to developing a new class. In my department, we have established and agreed-upon set of course outcomes for our first year composition courses, but that agreement has been tested in recent years as we have re-imagined what we want the classes to do. Without the spectre of high-stakes testing looming in the background, course outcomes often serve as focusing elements and shared goals, rather than quantitative measurement tools.

But not everyone at the university level thinks so highly of course outcomes; indeed, some believe they get in the way and distract from “real” learning, attempting to define in advance what will happen in a necessarily chaotic and unpredictable situation. In this way of thinking, attempting to identify course outcomes before the class begins spoils the fun and organic nature of the collaborative learning process. Jesse Stommel, of Hybrid Pedagogy and UW Madison, holds this view, and I know I can pick a fight with him at any time by articulating how beneficial and necessary I believe outcomes are. (This is an issue we have laughingly debated back and forth on numerous occasions.) According to this perspective, a course gathers students and instructor together to work with material and complex ideas so that every participant benefits and grows from the experience of being a part of the class. What everyone learns is dependent on the nature of the conversation and situations present in the course as it happens. The instructor may create a rough idea of the direction in which the course should head, but the outcome cannot be determined in advance.

This debate can be reduced to the tension between flexibility/play and predictability/goals. Those who approve of outcomes like knowing what to expect out of a course; those who dislike outcomes appreciate the spontaneity of the learning process. If you think back to how you learned to take notes, you probably did so out of necessity, and you probably found your style by trying out various other methods, ultimately using the one that, through experience, you knew benefitted you most. At one point while teaching high school, I was asked to teach my students to use the Cornell notetaking system. In the system, the note taker makes a vertical fold one third of the way across the page, then includes headings on the left side of the fold and details on the right. The approach is sound, and the concept makes sense to me. The notes allow students to both document and categorize information — essentially processing it — as they document. It’s a good idea. It totally doesn’t work for me, and I’m certain my students knew that as I tried to teach it to them. The problem here stems from learning outcomes that are inappropriately specific. rather than expecting students to learn, through experience and investigation, a form of notetaking that meets their needs, someone decided that notetaking can be a one-size-fits-all enterprise, and that once students learn to do notes this way, they will all be more successful. Sure, I was able to teach my students the Cornell method. But did they learn how to take effective notes? I doubt it.

Those (like me) who obsessed over learning outcomes should use caution to ensure that their outcomes are flexible enough to allow for individualized learning, rather than expecting all students to work the same way. Those who get frustrated by outcomes might see more value in them when their friends appropriately. If I phrase the outcome for my high school students as, “Students will experiment with various forms of notetaking and identify what elements and strategies work best for them,” I suspect that allows enough room for play to satisfy the skeptics.

Yes, but how can such an outcome be measured? I’ll look into that in a future post.

[Photo courtesy JD Hancock on Flickr.]

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