Sunday, May 25, 2014

Handwritten Notes vs. Laptops in Lectures: Ease vs. Effectiveness!

The article below, from today's Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, really resonated for me. Soon I will record my oft-told metaphors of wise mother birds who push their young from the nest, and the butterfly's necessary struggle to escape its chrysalis. In the meantime, there are many ways to generalize from this specific lesson in "ease versus effectiveness," I find the specific lesson valuable too. I wanted to tell Amy Korim how long ago I narrated "Peter and the Wolf" with the Brockton Symphony Orchestra and discovered my computer calendar from the time (February 11, 2007!) did not survive the transition to new software. My pre-computer, handwritten Journal volumes are intact. As far as remembering lectures, the "editing" the note-writer (as opposed to typist) must do, to capture the most salient points, makes the content their own.

Taking notes? Bring a pen, skip the computer
A little “desirable difficulty” is good for memory, a new study suggests
By Ruth Graham | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT | MAY 25, 2014

JUST ABOUT EVERY professor has complained about students with screens in front of them flitting over to Facebook or Tumblr instead of listening to a lecture. But, those distractions aside, it’s hard to blame the kids for wanting to type their notes instead of write them out longhand. Think of how much quicker you can type an e-mail than write a letter: Digital note-taking is simply easier.

A paper published online in the journal Psychological Science last month, however, suggests that longhand may actually hold an advantage when it comes to the most important reason we take notes—that is, to help us remember what we’ve heard. The researchers—Pam Mueller, a graduate student at Princeton University, and Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychology professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management—had students take notes on a lecture, and then quizzed them on it later. In the end, longhand note-takers performed better on quizzes than their laptop-wielding peers, even though the Internet was disabled.

If these findings seem suspiciously Luddite in their implications, it’s because they run counter to what we view as a key purpose of modern technology: to streamline, automate, and simplify tasks for us. But in fact, sometimes the easiest method is not the best. What Mueller and Oppenheimer observed is an illuminating example of what psychologists call “desirable difficulty”—the fact that sometimes, obstacles that frustrate us actually help us learn. It’s a phenomenon that suggests that, instead of rushing headlong into new technologies that make life easier, it may be worthwhile to ask whether they really improve outcomes or in some way sell us short.

Mueller and Oppenheimer started by having subjects watch a lecture on a screen, and assigning them to take notes either by hand or on a laptop. About 30 minutes later, subjects were quizzed about factual and conceptual elements of the lecture. They found that students who took longhand notes performed significantly better, particularly on conceptual questions.

Something even more surprising happened when the researchers waited a week to quiz their subjects, and then allowed them to review their own notes first. Because the laptop users could type faster than the writers could write, they had taken more notes, which other research has shown to be beneficial. “We though we might see [laptop users] rebound because they had extra content,” Mueller said. But the longhand note-takers still outperformed them. “We were really surprised that they seemed to not get any benefit from that.”

All notes are not created equal. Because laptop users are better able to keep up with the pace of speech, it turns out, they are more susceptible to transcribing lectures verbatim, a style of note-taking that previous experiments has shown to be inferior. “If students are taking down notes on everything that’s said in class, they’re just functioning as a stenographer,” said Michael Friedman, a cognitive psychologist who is conducting note-taking research as a fellow at the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching.

Note-taking is a two-part action: creating the notes (“encoding”) and reviewing them later (“storage”), both of which confer learning benefits. When the encoding becomes too easy, that first opportunity to learn is wasted, particularly when it comes to absorbing concepts rather than rote facts. (Some note-takers—say, journalists conducting interviews—do need verbatim notes, of course.) But even when Mueller and Oppenheimer specifically warned their subjects about the perils of verbatim notes, the laptop users couldn’t help themselves. When people have the chance to act like stenographers, they do.

Taking notes by hand, by contrast, forces students to grapple with the material enough to summarize it, since they aren’t physically capable of writing down every word. The constraints enforced by the rudimentary technology of pen and paper force a deeper engagement with the material, the paper concludes.

Twenty years ago, cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork gave this phenomenon a name: “desirable difficulty.” Bjork used it to describe how making learning harder can also make the information stick. For example, Oppenheimer coauthored a 2010 study that found that printing information in hard-to-read fonts helped students remember it later. But it’s tempting to apply the concept outside the world of education, too. A default assumption of modern life is that if technology can make something easier for us, we should use it. Desirable difficulty throws that idea into question.

Oppenheimer points out that we encounter situations where desirable difficulty plays out every day. Cellphones makes calling so easy that we no longer remember our best friends’ numbers. Recent research has shown that when people know they can use a search engine to recall information later, they are less likely to learn that information in the first place, instead opting to learn where they can locate the information. “That isn’t to say that cellphones or Google are disadvantageous,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They both are incredibly helpful and allow us to function much more efficiently. But they may be detrimental for certain goals: If your goal is to memorize phone numbers, don’t use autodial.”

Just as you can dial people’s phone numbers from your cellphone keypad, it’s possible to learn to use modern tools in ways that replicate some of the difficulty of older methods. In the case of note-taking, that could mean taking notes on a laptop but with some adjustments. “Students are notoriously incomplete note-takers,” said Kenneth Kiewra, an educational psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has been studying note-taking since the 1980s. His research has shown that students capture only about a third of important lecture ideas in their notes. “The laptop has potential because people can record more with a laptop, but we need to get them to not do it mindlessly.” In a study currently under review, he found that built-in breaks for note revision during class helped students significantly improve their notes—and their future quiz performances.

Others in the burgeoning scholarly research on note-taking have further suggestions. Mueller, for example, is interested in studying whether stylus-and-tablet devices might combine the benefits of computers and longhand. Oppenheimer speculates that it might be possible to somehow force typers to slow down, ensuring they take digital notes at the speed of longhand.

Meanwhile, the concept of “desirable difficulty” is finding parallels beyond the borders of pedagogy. Oppenheimer’s 2012 book, “Democracy Despite Itself,” locates a similar phenomenon within politics: The “veto players” who make democracy so frustratingly inefficient also protect us from catastrophically terrible policies being swept into law. Malcolm Gladwell used the term in his most recent book, “David and Goliath,” in observing that extremely successful people have often lost a parent in childhood and that many entrepreneurs have dyslexia. And echoes of the concept can be found in the ongoing vogue for “slow” everything: Slow food, slow church, slow parenting—and yes, slow education. It may be human nature to take the easiest route available, but it’s becoming clear that slowness and difficulty can add real value.

Meanwhile, professors and teachers will have decisions to make. Oppenheimer now starts each semester by describing his research on note-taking, and very few students go on to use laptops in his class. Some instructors go even further. University of Virginia history professor James Loeffler banned laptops from his classrooms a few years ago, fed up with how the devices turned even attentive students from big thinkers into transcribers. “My policy stems from my own critical reasoning—precisely what I am trying to teach students—not social science data,” he said by e-mail. But, he added, “It’s nice to have some reinforcement.”

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Satisfying mystery/Heartwarming love story

Killer LibrarianKiller Librarian by Mary Lou Kirwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Can a heartwarming story also be a satisfying mystery? Can a satisfying mystery also serve up a heartwarming love story? In the case of (pun intended) Mary Lou Kirwin’s Killer Librarian, the answer is yes, and yes. The back cover copy (on the paperback) says “library science meets the art of murder.” Cute, but true. Our hero(ine), Midwest librarian and bibliophile Karen Nash is sensitive and sensible, smart and resourceful. She shows there’s nothing weak about wanting to love and be loved, and nothing so disappointing as watching a cad get his just desserts. I laughed out loud when it happened, at how it happened, but for Ms. Nash it is no fun at all. They say revenge is best served cold, but perhaps it is better served in fantasy and anticipation only, without the actual delivery. This is a fast read, and fun, so I won’t throw in any more hints, and no spoilers whatsoever. The surprises are worth discovering for yourself. I’m ready for number two in this series.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Battered flesh and too much blood lost - I loved it!

Winter of the Wolf Moon (Alex McKnight, #2)Winter of the Wolf Moon by Steve Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tight writing and spare prose so characterize Hamilton’s work that my usual verbosity would be inappropriate. I really enjoyed this book and my admiration for both the writer and his characters, based on the first Alex McKnight novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, has grown. This is no James Bond superhero, but a man of flesh and blood – battered flesh and too much of his blood lost. The heroism is in cleaving to true values in the face of “bad actors” whose values are negative or nihilistic. Hamilton’s special virtue is in giving us secondary characters whose motives and values may not be what they seem when first seen. First-person narration can be awful, but in the hands of this prose master it gives us the opportunity to share our hero’s blind spots and to learn along with him the complexity of his fellows. This is a satisfying read. I look forward to more of the Alex McKnight series.

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

I learned so much from the Trustees and the people of Southbridge!

Jody and I attending this wonderful event this afternoon, thanks to a personal invitation from Margaret Morrissey. I served as JEL Library Director from 1990 to 2001 and learned so much from the Trustees and the people of Southbridge. This was my first library construction project, and I am still proud of the results. Jody is so impressed with their collection, especially their large print book collection, that she can't wait to bring her Mom for some serious browsing.

A quiet social centre, a source of intellectual growth!

Congratulations to Library Director Rob MacLean. This has been a long time coming. There is a link at the end of the article to a photo album, several of which show him carrying boxes, being hands on and in the middle of the actual work. So much for the glamour or "The corner office." I love the description that was true 116 years ago and just as true today, "...a quiet social centre, a source of intellectual growth, of benefit and joy in all time to come.

The Boston Globe
Weymouth’s Fogg Library reopens
By Johanna Seltz | GLOBE CORRESPONDENT | MAY 01, 2014

Five hours before Weymouth’s stately Fogg Library was scheduled to reopen on Monday, a dozen people had already gathered in front of the Columbian Square landmark, said library director Robert MacLean.

When the doors of the historic building opened at 1 p.m., the crowd of dignitaries, neighbors, and scores of people who had frequented the library as children flooded in to check out the restoration work, share memories, eat cake, and take out books.

“I’m just smiling ear to ear,” MacLean said as he surveyed the busy scene. “Seeing everybody happy and enjoying the space, that’s what a library is all about. And Weymouth has waited long enough.”

The Fogg closed for repairs in 2005, then underwent almost nine years and nearly $3.5 million in restoration and renovation projects. Mayor Sue Kay called the reopening one of her favorite moments as a public official.

“I was a councilor when we had to close it, and it was a very depressing day,” she said. “I’m so delighted that I’m mayor when it reopens.”

The Fogg first opened in 1898, the gift of local shoe manufacturer and banker John Fogg. (He also provided the funds for the Fogg Opera House, across the street, where residents heard such speakers as Booker T. Washington, a sometime summer inhabitant of the town.)

Built at a cost of $34,580, the Fogg was a private library until the town took it over in 1975 as the branch facility for South Weymouth. It is Weymouth’s smallest library, with about 10,000 volumes. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was made of Weymouth granite and topped with a slate roof, and featured lofty ceilings, stained-glass windows, fireplaces, and carved-oak columns, bookcases, and stairs.

But leaking water caused extensive damage, including the destruction of the entire children’s collection, and prompted its closing a decade ago. The town had repaired the exterior by 2010, and spent the next four years raising more money and renovating the interior, MacLean said.

“It was really a big mess,” he said.

Besides restoring the original woodwork and other architectural features of the Italian Renaissance-style structure, the town added an elevator, handicapped-accessible bathrooms, meeting rooms, new air conditioning and heating systems, and wireless Internet access, he said. The children’s room, with all new materials, was moved upstairs into what used to be the reference room.

The new furnishings share space with local antiques, including a large desk used by William Bell, creator of the Thanksgiving dinner mainstay “Bell’s Seasoning,” and numerous portraits of historic Weymouth figures.

There’s also a collection of Edmund Aubrey Hunt paintings, seven of them donated by Joseph Merten, a town resident and retired principal of North Weymouth’s Wessagusset School. Hunt was born in Weymouth — his father owned fan and fireworks factories — in 1855 but spent most of his life painting in England.

“This is going to be a destination for art lovers,” MacLean said.

He expects the Fogg also to be frequented by students from nearby Weymouth High School, employees of nearby South Shore Hospital, and its neighbors in South Weymouth.

The goal, he said, is for people to view the Fogg the way it was described in a booklet for the 1898 dedication, when officials wrote: “We hope it will become a quiet social centre, a source of intellectual growth, of benefit and joy in all time to come.”

“People are excited,” MacLean added. “People grew up in that building and they want to introduce it to their kids and grandkids and continue the tradition.”

Ann Marie Swanson came with her 3-year-old daughter, Tabitha, and planned to return with 5-year-old Daria to take out more books and lounge in the cozy children’s room.

“We live right down the street,” Swanson said. “My kids love to read, and this is so exciting for us to be able to walk down the street to the library.”

Natalie Procter came to the Fogg when she was a child, and was a librarian there in its heyday from 1966 to 1982. She returned for the reopening ceremony and said, “This is just the way I remember it.”

Duxbury librarian Lindsey Rakers said she came back to see the Fogg because she’d gone there as a child with her grandmother. “I’m very excited to see it reopen. It’s gorgeous, just like I remembered,” she said.

The Fogg will be open 28 hours a week: Mondays and Tuesdays from 1 to 9 p.m., Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m., and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The town also operates the main Tufts Library and two other branches.

Visit to see photos of the new Fogg Library. Johanna Seltz can be reached at