Less Talk, More Action

Across my facebook feed yet again came the discussion about taking notes by hand versus on a laptop. Like clockwork, every couple of months, one of my facebook friends shares an article that champions note-taking on paper over note-taking on an electronic device. This time, it was from the Washington Post: Why Smart Kids Shouldn’t Use Laptops in Class

This is not news. We’ve known this for a while and the research is really clear: If you are going to sit passively for 50 minutes and listen to a lecture, your best bet for retaining information is writing out notes on paper by hand.

But that’s a lot like saying, “If you have to hand-crank your car before your trip, it’s best to wear gloves, set the emergency brake and hold the choke out.”


Fifty minutes of lecture with your students taking notes may be the absolute worst way to teach anything. Yes, I’ve attended plenty of classes that were exactly that. I survived. I have a degree or two. If it was good enough for me back in 1982, it’s good enough for students today, right? Uh, no.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou:

When you know better, you do better.

Just as clear as the research concerning handwriting notes versus laptop notes is the evidence of more effective teaching techniques. Specifically, engaging students in active learning.

More Evidence that Active Learning Trumps Lecturing

Flipping Your Classroom

Improved learning in Large-Enrollment Physics Classes

My personal science hero is Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman. Not just because he won a Nobel prize, and not just because he took the million dollars from that prize and created PhET. Both of those things are really, really cool by any measure. He’s my hero because he genuinely cares about science education.

If you’ve not heard him speak about education, this is a good place to start:  A Nobel Laureate’s Plea: Revolutionize Teaching

From the article:

His techniques are grounded in data, and evaluations of active learning methods — published in several peer-reviewed journals and science publications — show that students get a deeper understanding of the material and retain more knowledge. In some cases, the failure rate fell by 12 percent. Test performance went up by half compared with pure lecturing.

Check out this screen shot I pulled from his pdf of a presentation:


When I see the phrase “effective teaching,” my hackles go up a bit (okay, they go up a LOT). Teachers have been the brunt of an awful lot of unfair criticism. I know I sometimes feel very much blamed for every ill of society. If you are having that reaction to this graph, I totally get it. Yes, this was in a college environment. Yes, there are not as many outside forces interfering in a college environment – but the data is striking and worth more than a second glance.

Am I advocating for the end of all lecture? No.

Of course there is a place for direct instruction.* Just make it age-appropriate. If you’re working with middle schoolers, no more than 5 – 10 minutes of it at a time. Older high school students can have a larger load of lecture – say, 15 – 20 minutes. Cognitive science research has told us for years that there are extreme limits on short-term working memory. At best, a student can use 5-7 distinct new pieces of information at a time. In a 30 minute lecture with the desired student outcome of using the law of conservation of energy to determine how much work must be done on a rollercoaster cart to achieve a speed of 65 mph at the bottom of the hill, a 9th grade student has to negotiate and work with the following:


They can save themselves some time if they remember that the force you apply to an object to move it (ignoring friction) is its weight and weight is mass x gravity…

…but there are still units of measure to use and convert, and math operations including taking square roots…

…and through all of this, we are ignoring heat, friction, efficiency, etc…

Note: I absolutely adore physics. I’m not a rocket scientist by any stretch of the imagination, but I love problem-solving like this. And as simplified as I made this problem, and as much as I have committed to long-term memory, it still took me 10 minutes to come up with this example. And I’m a grown-up. Who teaches physics. I’m in a quiet room, motivated to publish this blog post today. 

So, let’s stop talking about how students retain more information by taking hand-written notes and start talking about how 50-minute lectures are antiquated and irrelevant in the age of google and the internet. Instead, let’s get our students wrestling with real problems that lead to critical thinking and deep learning. With apologies to Toby Keith, let’s have a LOT less talk so we can have MUCH more action.*direct instruction = eduspeak for “lecture”

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