24 May 2009

Why and how do students take notes in class?

Most students take notes in class so that they can review and memorize the information just before the final exam.  Students take notes so they do not forget what they believe is important for later "cramming".  While most instructors would hope that they reformulate and interpret what has been taught, rather than just copy and regurgitate later, most students tend to do the latter.  Students also pick up certain cues from the instructors when they should take notes.  These include when instructors:

  • write on the board
  • dictate the information slowly
  • write a title of a section or a list of information
  • write out the definitions or catch phrases
  • write or draw macro-textual planning indicators that organize and structure the classes

There are also inhibiting indicators when students do not take notes.  These occur:

  • during discussions of material that do not contribute to the organization of what has been said
  • when the instructors interact with the students such as during responses by the instructors to students' questions
  • when there are hesitations in instruction, which the students take as signs that what is being said has not been planned
  • when the instructors put aside his or her notes, or walk around the classroom

In general, if students perceive that the information is not  planned or not written, they do not think that the information is important.  Students tend to put more effort in learning (also in notes taking) when the information learning process involves understanding and transformation operations.  A matrix structure or concept map structure seems to be more beneficial to the students than an outline structure, or a linear structure.  Students also benefit most in notes taking if they reflect and rework the notes to reinforce the structuring of knowledge after the lectures.


Boch, F. and Piolat A.  (September, 2005). Note Taking and Learning: A Summary of Research. The WAC Journal. Volume 16.

13 May 2009

What makes video gaming fun and computer science education not (at least for some)?

Neuroscientists suggest that human brains are drawn to systems where reward is clearly defined and achieved. The human brain has this dopamine system that keeps track of expected rewards and sends out alerts when those rewards don't arrive as expected. Good video games have rewards everywhere, and feed the brain with this craving of rewards. Good games also force the players to make decisions. Players may make good or bad decisions, but players learn from these decisions and adjust their game play accordingly. If they weigh the evidences, analyze the situations, consult their long term goals, and then decide wisely, they receive good rewards. Otherwise, their desire to attain rewards will drive them to continue in the game. This is the "flow experience" (Kiili and Lainema, 2008) that every game designer wants their players to experience. It is a a state of complete absorption or engagement in an activity and refers to the optimal experience that nothing else matters (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).

How can teaching computer science, or actually any subject, be as exciting as playing video games? For one, if grades in a course are the equivalence of rewards in a video game, then the frequency and the number of occasions where students can earn course grades need to be drastically increased. Instead of grades being awarded only through the few assignments, the midterms (possibly at most two in a course), and a final exam, perhaps a grading system where students accumulate grades more often, such as in every lecture and every lab, may be more effective. Rather than big assignments, midterms or final that may make up 50% of the final course grades, students may be more motivated in learning, and willing to learn through their mistakes, if the stake is lower, and they are given more chances to learn from their mistakes. Instead of coming to the lectures and expecting that the material not to be tested until the next assignment or test, each student would come to the lecture with an attitude and expectation of increasing their "score". Such constant feedback and rewarding may simulate the effect of the dopamine system. But then, is this really learning, or manipulating our students like Pavlovian subjects?


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper

Kiili, K., Lainema, T. (2008). Foundation for Measuring Engagement in Educational Games. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, v19 n3 p469-488 Jul 2008.

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything Bad is Good for You. New York: Riverhead Books.