Personal Responsibility vs. Learning?

Yesterday I had a few students absent and we did a lot of examples involving multiplying binomials, factoring and solving quadratics by completing the square. It was one of those lessons that “just happened.” I had one idea I wanted to nail down and it kinda morphed into a bunch of examples. I made up most of the examples on the fly because I was just gauging their reaction and taking what they gave me. So believe me when I say, “they wasn’t the pertiest lookin’ notes ya ever did see.”

Apparently, they were effective, though. The countenance of the class went from chin-on-hand-it’s-Friday-I’m-tired-here-we-are-now-entertain-us to thank-you-sir-may-we-try-another-cuz-this-is-some-cool-stuff-and-I’m-gettin’-it.

Its tough to reproduce lessons like that so I exported the notes to .pdf and emailed them to the absent students.

I just received this email from one of the recipients:

“Thanks for the notes! They will really help. I do have one question though; did you have to take time specifically out of the lesson to take the pictures or some other program that did them for you? I’m asking this because I think that if you did this every time we learned something new and posted it on your website[s], it would be a good resource.”

So I told him I slaved over my computer all of 30 seconds to export and email as an attachment. Which leads me to my question:

I have always taken a “students gotta take responsibility for their notes and review them regularly” kind of approach which has prevented my from exporting and posting the chicken-scratch covered slides from class. But if posting them is going to help them learn, should I care about the personal responsibility they take on (or don’t take on) in regards to their own note taking?

Whatdaya think?

Note: if you’re interested in what a spur-of-the-moment-ugly-as-heck-yet-equally-effective lesson in my class looks like on static slides, hit me up in the comments and I’ll update the post with a link. I’m posting this from my phone and won’t have access to the notes until Monday.


24 Responses to “Personal Responsibility vs. Learning?”

  1. 1 Russ Goerend January 23, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    Is the assumption that taking notes = being responsible true? Who is teaching kids how to take notes effectively? Is it one of those things that we assume “someone else” is teaching them?

  2. 2 Russ Goerend January 23, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    I’ll expand a bit from our Twitter conversation. The example I gave over there was of the student who just isn’t good at taking notes. Which shows more responsibility for that student: taking inadequate notes and missing the lesson/discussion or participating in the discussion and reviewing your notes later? I think it would be hard to argue that the former is more responsible.

    It’s just a hypothetical situation, I just wanted to point out that we have to be careful with our assumptions about our students abilities.

    If “students gotta take responsibility for their notes and review them regularly” is an approach you’re taking, have you taken the time to teach them how to do those things which you expect?

  3. 3 David Cox January 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm

    Point taken. Our school has adopted Cornell notes as the format we use and the language arts teachers take them through the process. With that being said, I have normally done the same for my students specifically. I have actually had them do self checks of their notes using a checklist I developed a few years ago. For whatever reason, I haven’t done that this year. Has that had an effect on their notes and/or their understanding of what to do with the notes after they have taken them? Not according to my observations. This leads me to believe that maybe there are just going to be kids who don’t do notes well. For them, it would definitely be more responsible to listen, watch and participate. Heck, it may be better for all of them to do that.

    My concern with making the static notes available has been 1) some may blow off taking notes in class(which may not be a bad thing) 2)my notes may make less sense to them then their own notes in their own words.

    However, I’m thinking that if a studet sees the notes exactly as they were in class, this may help with recall of what actually took place in class.

    Either way, I’ll probably start posting them.

  4. 4 Russ Goerend January 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    At the risk of just throwing technology at the situation, are you posting your notes on a wiki? Kids could edit the page to help clarify for each other.

  5. 5 David Cox January 23, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    No, I haven’t posted any notes at this point other than real time screencasts. It would be easy to email directly and allow them to post to wiki as they see fit.

  6. 6 Kendall January 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    What technology do you use in class for presenting your notes & work to the class?

  7. 7 Jessica January 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    I’d love to see the chicken-scratch as a jumping off point for how it may/may not be effective or reasonable to post notes every day. I thought about doing this for my calculus class at the beginning of the year, but with only 1 student and no great place to put everything, I let it slide. I think it would be a good idea for the future, though.

  8. 8 David Cox January 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Primary instruction is done in SmartNotebook on a SmartBoard. I’ve done screencasts using Camtasia studio and posted online for students to view before, during and after we cover a particular standard. We have a class wiki that students have contributed to for a couple of years that has become a growing resource. And we use GeoGebra regularly in class.

  9. 9 David Cox January 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Just realized I have the original email on my phone with the attachment. If you’d like to see them now, DM your email and I’ll send it to you. Otherwise it’ll have to wait until Monday.

  10. 10 Craig January 23, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    Either the California standards are more rigorous or your students are really, really smart. My 8th grade algebra students won’t get to quadratics until the end of the year.

    About the responsible note taking: I have one student who does not take notes at all. She will get out a notebook and make doodles while we are talking, but she is listening the whole time. If we do a problem on the board, she will watch, but she will not copy the problem down. She also gets the highest scores on tests.

    I save all my notes as a pdf and post them to my class Moodle page. I honestly don’t know how many of my students check them, but they are there for them to use.

  11. 11 Matt Townsley January 23, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    I was talking with you and a few other math teachers about this today on Twitter, so I’m really interested to read your thoughts and the thoughts of others who will hopefully add their two cents in the comments. Here’s my current thoughts on note taking and personal responsibility.

    First, the ultimate measure of responsibility is learning. I provide an outline of the notes for my students for several reasons. 1) In Geometry, there are so many figures and diagrams that students would feel the need to copy down, so it just makes sense to make them available for students to see and write above, around and below – they’re able to take the time to write down things that are important – their thoughts and ideas rather than wasting time and ink on the diagrams. 2) It’s a quick and easy classroom management and IEP accommodation. If IEPs state that I need to provide a graphic organizer or partial notes for a student, why not provide it for all students and create the expectation that EVERYONE is writing something down (and hopefully learning along the way).
    Second, the strategy described above naturally creates a problem. Whatever I write down on the board next to the diagrams and pictures, students write down verbatim. As you pointed to in your post, it’s not good when students write down things that don’t make sense to them. Maybe addressing this and teaching students strategies to write notes that do make sense to them should be part of our soft skills curriculum? However, if the situation is binary as it often seems to be…either students writing something down because they’re tuned in or not writing down anything at all because they’re dozing off, it’s much easier to point to problem 5 on page 3 of the notes outline then it is to say “get your notebook out and start writing” only to have the student be completely clueless. Every once in a while, rather than giving students the notes outline, I will have them read the section of the textbook and (in groups) create their own notes outline. Then we’ll compare it to mine and see how well they did. It’s a strategy that I think will help them in the post-secondary math world, being able to read a math textbook and identify the important ideas.
    Last, if a student takes the time to download the notes from your website, isn’t that a form of responsibility, too? Don’t we want our students to use the resources available to them? It seems like there were a few professors in college who posted handouts/resources on their website and the expectation was for students to download them on their own time. How many times have I forgotten a math formula or conversion and googled it? Now that I have a smart phone, I feel more lazy and more competent all at the same time. 🙂

    This brings me to the original question I posed on Twitter. What are other math teachers doing with “notes.” Outlines? a free-for-all “write down whatever you want in your notebook”? providing slides/notes on their website?

    Is there an age/class where we should expect our students to take notes without an outline or prompting? Keep the questions and comments coming!

  12. 12 Russ Goerend January 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm


    I hate to boil down such a thick comment to just the question you asked at the end, but I do have an answer!

    The age where we should expect our students to take notes without an outline or prompting is after they’ve learned how to do it. It’s the same expectation we have for all of our…expectations. It’s not after we’ve taught it, but after they’ve learned it.

  13. 13 Matt Townsley January 23, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    “It’s not after we’ve taught it, but after they’ve learned it.” That’s the easy way out! 🙂

    Seriously, the challenge David proposes, is providing (or not) the classroom experiences students need to learn this soft skill. In Robyn Jackson’s book, Never Work Harder than Your Students, she says, “We say that we want students to take more responsibility for their own learning, yet we continue to control every aspect of their learning…How will students learn to take more responsibility unless we first relinquish some of the control?” (p. 156).

    It’s easy for us all to say that we need to relinquish control. It’s easy for us all to say that we can expect students to take notes without an outline once they’ve learned it.

    By asking questions such as “Is there an age/class where we should expect our students to take notes without an outline or prompting?” I’m just as guilty as the next at attempting to generalize situations that are obviously not generalizable from school to school, class to class and district to district. I guess I should be asking to hear more about the specific strategies other math teachers are using to relinquish control in their classroom – strategies that help scaffold students into becoming more self-regulated learners. David’s thoughts on posting them to the web and our earlier twitter conversation coupled with our recent podcast recording, Russ, really have me thinking more and more about student responsibility.

  14. 14 Russ Goerend January 23, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    I guess I’ll need more convincing that ensuring every student has learned to use the tool the way we expect them to use it is the easy way out. 🙂

    I’m going to step aside and let you guys work on your specific questions. Interested to see what you come up with.

  15. 15 Matt Townsley January 24, 2010 at 6:24 am

    I’ll step on my tongue and say that the short answer is warranted and true. I’m fishing for scaffolding strategies to help students get to this ideal, so the answer seemed too easy based on my poorly articulated response. I’ll be the one to listen for a bit now…

  16. 16 Matt Ruden January 24, 2010 at 9:29 am

    Good conversation here. I am often haunted by the question “Should we write this down?” or it’s cousin “Do we have to write this down?” Quite frankly, I tell them no, you do not have to write this down…it’s your CHOICE. If writing these things down helps you, then by all means do so. If it doesn’t…then don’t. But I always follow up with those students that I observe not taking notes with their work. Is not taking notes really working for them? It works both ways too. Some students take notes because they think its what you should do in order to be a “good” student, but they never USE their notes. They will write vigorously and once the lesson is over, they close the notebook and begin work on their assignment and at the first sign of struggle, they come to me and ask. “Didn’t you take notes?” “Yes.” “Did you look them over?” “No.”

    I use an ELMO visual presenter and have considered posting screen captures of my notes online, but only a minority of my students have online access at home. Eventually, I would like to try video podcasts of my class available for my students both for review and for absent students, but I currently teach 4 different math courses and I don’t have the time to work with 4 different video podcasts daily….someday maybe.

    So I would say I don’t think it hinders personal responsibility when you make your notes available online. I think the responsibility isn’t in the hand to paper interaction with the notes, it with the brain to notes interaction, so any means to facilitate that is a plus in my book.

  17. 17 peeterjoot January 24, 2010 at 10:01 am

    Especially in math, as a student, I often personally don’t really understand something until I do it (ie. work the problem sets). Having a good set of notes to refer to afterwards when and after doing the problems, including all the things that you may have not thought had any value at the time you were in the class then has much higher value.

    Also consider that the texts often cover the same material as what one would take notes of. As a student I always preferred listening in the lecture/class instead of robotically taking notes. I’d rather scribble down a little detail here and there and refer to the text later for the rest. This is probably a highly personal stance, but on average I don’t think that providing good notes can hurt more than it helps.

  18. 18 Jim January 24, 2010 at 10:24 am


    I go back and forth on this often. This year, as my students present and post problems, I have started taking pictures of every problem and posting them in online class folder. I, too, want students to be actively engaged in class in correcting their own work and/or taking notes on the problems as they do them – but the reality is they don’t all learn best that way. I spend time talking to them about finding what works for them. I have students who diligently copy everything down because they know the tactile act of writing it out helps them. I have others who jot down key ideas, but focus most on listening and interacting because they process the information better when presented in an auditory manner. And, yes, I have those students who just sit their hoping that looking at the pictures the night before the test will save them from the lack of doing day-to-day work. It usually doesn’t, and that in itself leads to a conversation.

    If you figure out the best answer, let me know!

  19. 19 LSquared January 24, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    As teenager I spent a month going to school in England. Science class was interesting: during class it seemed like the class went _so slow_ I had time to write down everything. I seemed like: if I were in America, I’d be learning so much more so much faster. But! When I looked at my notes after class, they were clearly the best, clearest notes I had ever taken. I could actually go back and learn from them! In America, I always had the choice of writing everything down, or listening, thinking and understanding at the time. The pace was so fast that there was no way I could do both. I alternated back and forth a lot–I never did decide which was better.

    Anyway, I know that I’m an American teacher now. In a 50 minute class on completing the square, I’d work probably 4 examples, and have the students work at least 2 problems, maybe more. At any rate, I’d be doing as many problems as I could plausibly do without losing most of the students. Clearly my students have the same problem I had as a student.

    I observed a teacher with a more deliberate style last semester–1 really slow, in depth, example, where I would have done 4. I don’t think I could ever slow down to that speed, but I’m wondering if I should be talking slower. Anyway…it’s an interesting thought that my lecture speed could be stopping students from taking effective notes.

  20. 20 David Cox January 25, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    I probably should clarify that my classes are made up of the top kids in the school. By “top” I mean, highest test scores and/or identified as GATE. That presents its own set of challenges though because many are just really good at playing school. Many of my students fall into the category of a kid who may look like he’s not paying attention but then ace the assessments. Others have gotten away with bad habits of doing things in their head without writing anything down but once they encounter algebra, they struggle.

    With that, I would also say that the CA standards for algebra are pretty rigorous. Solving quadratics by completing the square is definitely something they are expected to know.

    As for notes and their value, if I look back at my education, I didn’t find any value in notes until I got to college. I wrote down examples in high school but that was about it.

    I think some really good points have been brought up here in regards to expecting students to take notes. What does that look like? Do we give them guided notes? Worksheets? Fill in the blanks? I think at the end of the day, I am looking for ways to have students engage more without me having to kill myself with preparation.

    We do, in fact, have to consider whether or not we can expect students to pay attention, watch, listen and write at the same time. I know I would like my students to learn to watch, listen, question, discuss…all of the above–and still be able to write some things down that they decide are important.

    Is that a soft skill that needs to be actually taught? Probably so. Who is supposed to do it? Maybe the pencil teacher.

  21. 21 Matt Townsley January 26, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    Re: soft skills. I’m trying to summarize this discussion so far. Every teacher has a few choices to make in his/her classroom. They look something like this:

    1) Knowledge archive/organization: provide all notes; outline of notes; notes available online/hard copy after the fact; nothing
    2) Knowledge recall level on assessments: provide all formulas; some formulas; student memorizes all formulas

    We want students to be able to take notes. We want students to be able to organize their learning/notes/ideas. We want students to be able to recall/find the appropriate ideas/formulas when needed. These are some of the soft skills students need to be successful in math class. Is it our job to teach these skills or can we assume they already have them? My guess is that we’re in the soft skills education business, too. Hmm…you’ve got me thinking, David.

  22. 22 Tracie Schroeder January 27, 2010 at 9:07 am

    It’s my experience that the kids that are trying to take notes in the first place are the ones that will use the posted notes as a resource. I have so many students, good students, that never write a word down in class. I don’t require notes, but after asking a few, they simply said they didn’t know what they should write down. So, in my case, no one has taught them how to take notes in the first place.

  23. 23 Whit Ford February 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    I had a wonderful statistics professor in business school who was voted “best teacher” several years running. I took two courses from him, and loved his approach for a highly conceptual course:

    He would hand out his notes before class, talk from them using overhead transparencies of them, and we could annotate the handout notes as he progressed (or not).

    As a student, I was freed of the need to try to write everything down, madly trying to summarize one complex concept while listening to the next one… I could concentrate on the ideas, and take notes only when new information arose, or I acquired an insight that I did not feel was adequately described in the notes.

    But, if the course has a textbook, why are copious notes needed? Shouldn’t students use the textbook as a resource for more than just homework problems? Shouldn’t they learn how to learn from the textbook on their own (they will need to be able to do this in college)? If that is successfully done (no easy task), class time can be used to concentrate on trouble spots for students.

    Such an approach can allow for more focused class time (as L Squared described), and less need to take notes to begin with.

  1. 1 SmartBoard Notes « Continuous Everywhere but Differentiable Nowhere Trackback on January 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm

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