The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Experimenting with note-taking

Most EAP courses include something about note-taking. It’s an area I’m always a bit unsure about how to teach … Is it better to teach a specific note-taking technique? To get students to experiment with a few? Or just to stick to explaining general principles and let them find their own preferred format? 

Recently, I’ve found myself on the other side of the classroom as I’ve started studying for a part-time MA. It’s given me lots of food for thought from a student’s perspective and the opportunity to play around with different approaches to studying, including notetaking.

I should probably start off by admitting that my note-taking in lectures has been minimal to non-existent. All my lecturers use PowerPoint presentations, the slides are available online and often as a printed handout as well and there’s generally another handout and a reading list to take away too. So beyond the odd scribble on a handout, I haven’t really felt the need to take notes. I’m just making sure I file all the handouts for future reference.

When it comes to reading though, I’m very aware of the need to take notes, especially when you’re reading to write. I’ve always banged on to my students about the importance of note-taking when you read to keep a record of ideas that you might want to use with all the relevant reference information so you don’t waste ages trying to track something down again later. I also stress how useful note-taking can be in transforming the ideas you’ve read into your own voice and incorporating them into your train of thought that will then, hopefully, help you slot them seamlessly into your writing. I know that so many of my students slip into plagiarism or patch-writing just because they’re writing their essay with the source text open in front of them and it’s all too easy just to copy the words across. If you process the information as you read and translate it into notes, then half the job of linking ideas together and weaving them into your own argument has been done already.

But what’s the best format for doing that? Well, I’ve had two sets of assignments to complete so far, two pieces of coursework mid-term and two more over the Christmas break and I approached each using a different technique …

I’ve been using Evernote for a while now for keeping notes on various work-related things, so it was the first format I turned to when I was preparing for the first set of assignments. 

Pros: I was doing some of my reading on the train to and from university (an hour each way, twice a week and I found, one of my best times for reading), some I was doing at home and occasionally, I did a bit in the library too. This meant that being able to make notes either on my tablet or on my desktop and having them automatically synced was really useful. Plus the notes are all neatly filed and easy to refer back to in future.

Cons: There’s lots of flicking about between windows, both if you’re reading and making notes on the same device and when you’re using notes to write from. Although during writing, I got round this by having my notes open on my tablet while writing on my desktop. I also found it quite difficult to get on overview of key ideas when faced with lots of screens of similar-looking, small, black text. I could probably experiment with different fonts and colours, but that’s fiddly when you’re making notes on a tablet.

My second set of assignments were during the Christmas break, so I was working almost entirely at home. And with a longer essay which involved a review of the literature in a particular area, I took a different approach. As I was reading (quite a bit from books this time), I noted down key points that might be relevant on post-it notes and stuck them on the page as I went along (including those all-important page numbers!).

Then when I’d done a big chunk of reading, I used my wardrobe doors to arrange the notes into themes and to order them.

Pros: It was fun! I still find it much more natural to write notes by hand than using my fiddly tablet keyboard and rearranging the notes so I could see the shape of the essay emerging was a really nice way to organize my ideas; moving things about, spotting gaps, doing a bit more reading, adding more notes, taking stuff off that wasn’t really relevant. I was almost tempted to stop at that point and just submit a photo of my notes! But actually it did help the writing process too, getting up to look at the notes, taking one off to include it, then sticking it back up, checking that I hadn’t missed any key points.

Cons: It only worked because I was at home for the whole process, it wouldn’t have been practical if I’d been trying to read and collect post-its on the train. And I realized as I took them down that they won’t be very practical to store for future reference, so at some point, I’ll probably sit down and type them up into Evernote anyway!

So what are my conclusions … well, first and foremost, I’d say that experimenting is definitely good, it helps you work out what approach works best for you. If I were teaching EAP classes again in the future, I’d definitely get students to try out different techniques and to make submitting their notes part of some writing tasks … and not just as a boring page of bullets points either!

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Friday, January 13, 2017

A Talk on Twitter

Last week, I had the chance to speak at the IH AMT Conference in London. I was talking about the difference between receptive and productive vocabulary and its implications for teaching. It was a fun event with a buzzy atmosphere and an engaged audience, and my session seemed to go down well. I was also lucky enough to have the wonderful Sandy Millin live-tweeting from my session so when I checked Twitter afterwards, I found a huge flurry of mentions and retweets. This got me thinking about the implications of Twitter when you're giving talks and workshops ... what are the benefits - and downsides - of having your session tweeted out to the wider world?

On the plus side ...
- You can reach a wider audience and engage more people in the discussion.
- You get to see what the main points the tweeters picked up on were. It's an interesting exercise,  especially when you compare the tweets to the points you'd hoped to get across!
- You also get to see which ideas sparked most interest through likes and retweets, which is both interesting and provides useful feedback, perhaps for refocusing future talks.

On the downside ...
- Putting all your carefully prepared material out there online leaves you rather compromised if you plan to give the same talk again to another audience! This is especially true if pictures of key slides where there's a surprise element get tweeted ... I'll definitely have to think twice now about reusing some sections of this talk exactly as they were.
- It's easy for your ideas to be misrepresented. I have to say that all the tweeters from my session were actually really good at putting points across accurately, but the tweet that turned out to be the most retweeted wasn't actually quite what I said ...

What I did say was that 7 is considered to be the magic number by psychologists when it comes to the number of items we can retain in our short-term memory and that memory's one factor you need to consider when designing vocab activities - you need to think about how many items to focus on (not necessarily exactly 7!) and be careful not to overload students. Of course, in 140 characters, context and hedging tend to get lost ...

Overall, it was a really interesting experience and I think the pluses of being tweeted definitely outweigh the minor drawbacks. Big thanks to the IH team for inviting me and for organizing such a great event and to the whole audience - including the tweeters! - for being so engaged.

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