Disappearing notes

January 14, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 04:52 am IST

Taking notes in class helps as opposed to PowerPoint presentations, which often take the focus off the speaker

An acquaintance recently quipped, “We all know power corrupts, but what we are beginning to understand is that PowerPoint corrupts absolutely!” Attributed to Yale Professor Edward Tufte (the title of his article in Wired magazine in 2003), this idea certainly gives us something to think about — both as users and viewers of PowerPoint.

Slide presentations offer a huge convenience, of course. They allow the speaker to illustrate the talk in many ways, and provide additional details that are difficult to recount orally. They can also help the audience understand the content of the talk if the speaker is not very clear.

There are disadvantages, however. Speakers may depend too much on the slides to get them through the lecture. They end up looking at the slides rather than at the audience. And the audience, for its part, ends up staring at the slides instead of really engaging with what the speaker is saying.

Crucial process

In classroom lectures where PowerPoint presentations are not only used but are shared with the students, another thing gets thrown out the door — note-taking.

Yes, it’s great to have that set of slides as a study guide at the end of the course, but while the slides offer a bare outline of the course, what they often lack is the meat of the discussion and explanation that usually accompany the presentation.

This is where note-taking comes in. “Taking” notes must be distinguished from that rather sterile activity that used to happen in school, called “making notes” which is something that helps you answer specific questions in an examination.

Rather, when you take notes, you are in fact “taking note” or paying attention to what is being said and thinking about it, digesting it even as you are writing something down.

A commentary

When the set of slides becomes the only reference material for the class, you actually lose some important parts of the classroom dynamic — your own ideas and thoughts that were triggered by the lecture, and the teacher’s additional comments that may not have found their way into the slides. Good notes contain more than the teacher’s lecture word-for-word, but they are like a commentary, often containing points that help you follow through on what was discussed in class.

You might underline something that you found particularly interesting, or put down an exclamation point next to an idea that surprised or excited you, and these marginal notes come in useful when (for instance) you go back to talk to your teacher to clarify something or when you are trying to put your thoughts in order before an examination.

How notes help

When I look back at the notes I made, I find in addition to the summary points related to the topic of discussion, several questions and comments in the margins. These usually are tangential to the topic itself, but they open interesting pathways into related areas, or connect it to something else I might be working on. When I read them later, they serve as good pointers to my own memory of the class. Taking notes has helped me “fix” my ideas in specific ways within the framework of a class or a lecture.

A similar process of taking notes can also help when you are reading an academic text for the first time. Part of these notes might, like with the lectures, be simply summary points from the article or book chapter. But alongside, you may also write your own observations and thoughts as they strike you while you read.

This also helps you distinguish your understanding of the text from the text itself. So when you are asked to comment on the text or discuss it in “your own words,” you can go back to these notes and simply put your observations together.

Correcting a mistake

In my early fascination with PowerPoint, I too have made the mistake of telling my students not to bother with taking notes because I am going to share the presentation with them. But now I know better. When I give students my slides, I am just giving them my version of the topic. When they take notes and combine that with my slides, it is assimilated in a way that becomes their own.

(The author teaches in the University of Hyderabad and edits the Teacher Plus magazine)

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