Two weeks ago, I undertook a course at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. HKS is Harvard’s school of public policy and public administration. I’ve had the good fortune to now have completed five professional development programs at Harvard University over the last six to seven years—some at the medical school, but others affiliated with the business school, the education faculty and now two at HKS. I must say I have experienced some of the best classroom teachers in my life at these programs.
This time the course was Leadership Decision Making. As many of you may know, I have quite an interest in the neuroscience of decision making, especially as it applies to how we teach diagnostic reasoning. This course used the same fascinating research to review how leaders can optimize decision making. One very interesting aspect was an afternoon in their Decision Science Laboratory that provided me feedback on my own decision making.
Dr. Jennifer Lerner, the leader and founder of the course, was an incredible teacher and an inspiring leader. Jenn is a professor of Public Policy and Management at HKS, with a PhD in Psychology from U of C – Berkeley. She describes her role as scholar/practitioner and has held numerous roles advising leaders at the highest levels of government, business and military, around the world. The other faculty were equally impressive, and the 60 participants were fascinating people from around the world.
Part of our preparation for the course was a reference (I’ve provided a link below). Jenn surprised me on day one, when she appealed to all participants to not use laptops. Her reasons included the obvious distractions that these tools entail, but primarily focused on the research that shows students taking notes on laptops retain less material than those who do it the old-fashioned way!
Careful perusal of this paper will reveal that there is more to it than that. The evidence is that most people can type faster than they can write but written notes outperform laptops! While overall pen and paper notes outperformed laptop notes, in fact within and across both groups, note takers who took concept-based and summarizing notes outperformed learners who took verbatim notes.
So we should do all we can with our pedagogy to avoid conditions that promote verbatim note taking.
As with most blogs for the rest of this year, I will bring you back to accreditation of our undergrad program. One area of student concern that was very clear to our mock accreditors was the issue of lectures. The two concerns raised were those lectures where the slide deck was not available before the lecture and those that were not recorded.
Making the slides available before the lecture allows students to prepare for the lecture and actually plan their note taking. The research clearly shows that the opportunity to reframe the content, move from words to concepts and summarize the material leads to deeper learning. Furthermore, we know one of the reasons students attend lectures in person or by viewing a recording is concern that material in the lecture will be on the exam. In those lectures where the students know there is no recording, they are obliged to revert to verbatim note taking.
We also know that students doing review of recorded lectures are predominately doing focused repetitive review of specific segments of the lecture, usually on complex topics and often to complement the notes taken in the lecture. This review is done as much by the students who were in the room as those who were not.
I do know it is disheartening as a lecturer to work hard to prepare a lecture and deliver it to a sparsely populated room. However, students tell me that the prime driver of lecture attendance is actually a well-designed unit or course where all the curricular components—including the lecture—tie together and, most importantly, an excellent lecturer who cares about the students. They all speak glowingly of the hematology module as an example of excellence, and they asked our accreditors why all units or modules could not learn from that module.
Recall that we do not make lectures mandatory and there are many quite legitimate reasons for being unable to attend a lecture. Besides, students always have options. Just Google “YouTube, heart failure.” Wouldn’t we all hope they were watching our lectures?
I know that it is at our faculty member’s discretion to pre-circulate lecture slides and/or record the lecture. However, our students have repeatedly put forward this request. I think there is research supporting the benefits of both of these best practices in providing lectures and lecture materials. I would appeal to all faculty members to consider our students wishes and honour their beliefs in what is best for their learning.
As always, I welcome your feedback and my door is open!