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Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Notes?

In a class this past December, after I wrote some directions on the board for students about their final examination, one young woman quickly snapped a picture of the board using her smartphone.

It wasn’t the first time a student had taken a picture instead of taking notes, nor was she the only student in that class who was using this photographic note-taking method. But perhaps because she was sitting in the front row, or perhaps because her phone flashed, she drew my attention.

When I looked in her direction, she sheepishly apologized: “Sorry. Was it wrong to take a picture?”

I assured her that she needn’t apologize and that I didn’t see it as wrong. But I did ask why she had taken a picture instead of writing down notes. “I’m just curious,” I explained.

For several years now I’ve observed this new trend in note taking, and in recent months I’ve noticed an increase in its frequency. Some students try covertly to take pictures of the board or, curiously, the PowerPoint presentations. I say “curiously” because I post my PowerPoint presentations online.

The students sit, scrunched in their desks, and attempt, silently and stealthily, to snap pictures throughout the class—as if their phones came with an invisibility-granting cloaking device. Others are bolder and, like the young woman described above, sit in the front and snap away with flashes on.

“I can’t read my own handwriting,” the young woman explained. “It’s best if I take a picture of your writing so I can understand the notes.”

That remark sparked a classwide conversation about taking a picture versus taking notes. For those in the photo-snapping camp, motives extended beyond their inability to comprehend their own penmanship. Some took pictures of notes because they knew their phone was a safe place to store material. They might lose paper, they reasoned, but they wouldn’t lose their phone. Some took photos because they wanted to capture exactly the manner in which I had noted information on the board. Others told me that during class they liked to be able to listen to the discussion without the distraction of writing notes.

Students have been using laptops and tablets in the classroom for years to circumvent some of the tedium of taking notes by hand. Students have also brought small voice recorders to class in order to record the lecture. The logic of convenience that students use to defend those devices has been transferred to the smartphone: With a portable computer in their pocket, why wouldn’t they make good use of its applications?

Yet the use of cameras as note takers, expedient as it may be, does raise significant questions for the classroom. What of the privacy of other students? Does clandestine photographic note taking violate intellectual-property laws? What of institutional and professorial policies on cellphone use? Those matters are important, but a different question has piqued my interest: Is a picture an effective replacement for the process of note taking?

Instructors encourage students to take notes because the act of doing so is more than merely recording necessary information—it helps pave the way for understanding. Encouraging students to take notes may be an old-fashioned instructional method, but just because a method has a long history doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. Writing things down engages a student’s brain in auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning—a view supported by longstanding research. The act of writing down information enables a person to begin committing it to memory, and to process and synthesize it, establishing the building blocks of learning new concepts.

Taking a picture does indeed record the information, but it omits some of the necessary mental engagement that taking notes employs. So can the two be equally effective?

The answer to that question is difficult to gauge, and short of hooking up students to electrodes and monitoring their brain waves as they take pictures or write notes, I’m not sure how to measure the neurological efficacy of either method. For now, I allow students to take notes however they see fit—handwritten, typed, voice-recorded, or photographed—because I figure that some notes, no matter the method of documentation, are better than none.

Jessica Higgins is an assistant professor of English at Broward College.

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