Assigning Notes

For a few years now in my freshman writing course, I have included notes as part of my students' grades (5-10%). Originally, they were conceived of as a handwritten assignment, but after receiving several official accommodation requests, I realized I could make the assignment better by building in flexibility. In many ways, this assignment was my entry point into disability studies, which has developed into one of my central pedagogical concerns and academic specializations.

My colleague Rick Godden argues that in creating assignments, "we should not assume that everyone approaches information, be that digital or print, in the same way. To do so...excludes so many and enforces an expectation of normalcy" ("Humanities Accessed"). So, students create notes in whatever way best fits their abilities and styles. They can hand-write, type, orally record, graphically design, highlight & mark margins, or pose new strategies I haven't thought of.

I have taught students for whom both hand-writing and typing were not efficient options. These students worked with a software program called Kurzweil and were trained by accommodation specialists at the university. According to Shawna Foose of Tulane's Goldman Office of Disability Services, the software "allows students to read texts in electronic format, highlight important text, and then consolidated the highlighted texts into an outline. It has a bit of a learning curve, but can be very helpful." Moreover, I am currently working on creating adaptable grading structures, in which students can choose which components go into their grade. So, a student whose abilities precluded notes could focus more on another aspect of the course or pose an alternative assignment.

While I thought I might experience some resistance to the assignment, I have been pleasantly surprised in that I have not. I apply the same attitude toward this assignment as I do to all others. This exercise is an opportunity to learn concepts and to improve your understanding of our course. I won't hold it against them if they chose not to complete them, but I explain concepts probably won't stick as well. By showing empathy instead of frustration, I find when students skip notes, they become more apologetic than being angry at me for assigning them.

Logistically, the notes take the place of quizzes, which are often less accommodating and can seem random. During graduate school, one of my professors said she gave quizzes in her literature class because students want to get credit for what they are doing. I really like that as a justification, switching the discourse from "quizzes penalize you if you're not reading" to "quizzes give you credit for work that will help you in the class." But I've never mastered the art of quizzes and some students get test anxiety. So, I needed to find another way to get students that credit.

Now, I have students take notes on most of their readings, on PowerPoint lectures I assign for homework, on any short class lectures, and on videos (10-15 minutes long). These notes enable the semi-flipped classroom structure I employ. For those unfamiliar with the term, the flipped classroom flips the traditional structure of taking notes on lectures during class and doing exercises at home. Instead, students take notes on lectures at home, and practice those skills in class where they have a teacher to guide them through problems.

I grade notes in class about 3 times a year, while students are working on an exercise. Students have advance notice, and they organize and number their notes. I go from person to person, assess their notes in a moment of two, and record the grade.

Infographic with Research on Handwritten Notes

Justifying the Assignment
In the syllabus where I explain our notes, I try to justify the assignment for students by showing them startling research demonstrating that within two days, they will have forgotten  nearly 70% of what was said in class that day. Compound that class after class, and students who don't take notes risk performing poorly because of simple forgetting.

Things I learned from my students:
1. My students say they don't mind taking notes on readings that cover key terms, methodologies, or writing practices, things that they will return to again and again. I share that response with classes now and explain on the first day that we won't have any required textbooks, that instead, they will be taking notes on short readings and in essence creating their own textbooks.

2. Students report that they do not like taking notes on readings for short articles that will be discussed the next day, articles more on a topic like technology than on the methods of the class. It feels redundant to them, and they say that the original notes aren't helpful. In the future, I'm going to try more guided note-taking geared toward our class activity, such as "list x rhetorical devices that the author uses" or "explain why you do or don't agree with the author by pointing toward specific textual evidence."

3. My students want to be taught how to take notes. They ask mostly about length and content. To help them, I have begun teaching the Cornell notes method described in the infographic.

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