Tips from the McMaster Community

My students just write or copy things down rather than listening in order to understand.
David Palmer, Counselling and Career Services

Students commonly say, "In class I just write or copy everything down. If I didn't I'd probably miss something which will be on the exam."

Unfortunately, by concentrating on writing or copying things down, these students are not able to listen with the kind of attention they need in order to understand the material. In fact they may soon have so little grasp of what is going on in the course that they have no alternative except to copy things down.

Part of the problem often lies in poor study habits. The students have neglected to do the regular studying required to keep up with understanding the classes. However, another common problem is the conception students have of what is required of them. "This course is all memory work", they often say. "You just have to be able to regurgitate the information on the test."

If students see a course as requiring the memorizing and reproduction of a mass of facts, they simply try to record this information in class. If, on the other hand, they develop a more sophisticated concept of their task - understanding concepts, principles, processes, patterns and relationships - they are less tied to the copying down of "facts".

Most instructors claim that it is the latter which best describes what they want students to do. If so, they need to overcome some entrenched misconceptions. Simply saying to students such things as, "You don't have to copy this down", may not be very useful, as this is interpreted by many students as simply meaning, "This topic will not be the subject of test questions" which is rather a different message.

  • One approach might be to hold periodic discussions in class of what students really need to get from - and do - in classes, as well as from their study time between classes. In particular, there needs to be a focus on the relationship between the factual material and what students need to understand. This should go far beyond the notion of "These facts you have to know; these facts you don't". Many students need to be shown how one uses "facts" to build understanding - seeing how things relate and discerning larger units and patterns - and how this in turn helps one retain information.
  • They may need to be convinced that notes taken in class will be useful afterwards mainly to the extent that they summarize or crystallize their understanding of the material under discussion, rather than simply recording undigested terminology and information. Notes made without understanding are rarely useful.
  • Class discussion also needs to confront the obvious student objection: "What if I miss something?" The answer will vary from course to course, depending on such things as textbook resources. But there is a common theme: recording the "facts" without understanding their significance is seeing the trees but missing the forest.
  • Since student behaviour is so strongly influenced by perceptions of what is needed to pass exams, drawing attention to these issues is especially important if tests contain items which appear to students to require simple memorization, such as some multiple choice items. I often hear something like the following: "My art history tests ask who painted this picture, and when and where; that's just memorization". But is it? We remember that kind of information largely by seeing the significance of a painting within a meaningful context of historical or stylistic developments. The work of art has been chosen not as an arbitrary "fact", but perhaps as an example of a particular style or school of thought, representing a significant change from previous styles or ideas.
  • It might also be helpful to conclude certain classes with something like the following: "Suppose you had a friend who missed class today. This evening, rather than just handing her your notes, you decide to explain to her in detail the material she missed. Let's try to summarize what you would need to be able to do..."

Such strategies may allow some students to be released from their self-imposed pressure to write everything down and "give them permission" to adopt a more thoughtful approach.

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