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Our teaching-and-learning experts give you insights on what works in the classroom. Delivered on Thursdays. Teaching is written by Beth McMurtrie and Beckie Supiano. We love hearing from readers, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us directly. You can also read more articles about teaching and learning.

From: Beckie Supiano

Subject: Teaching: The Power of Group Note-Taking

You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • I describe the benefits a professor has found from asking students to share note-taking responsibilities.
  • I pass along an instructor’s thoughts on replicating before- and after-class interactions, and ask for yours.
  • I share some recent articles you may have missed.

Collaborative Note-Taking

Students come to Brielle Harbin’s introductory American-government course with a wide range of background knowledge. Some passed the Advanced Placement exam, while others haven’t studied the topic since they were freshmen in high school. That leaves Harbin, an assistant professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy, looking for ways to level the playing field.

One approach she’s found helpful is collaborative note-taking, in which students rotate note-taking responsibilities in a shared Google document (Harbin has the rest of the class take their own notes by hand). As Harbin describes in a recent article for College Teaching, the approach has several benefits. It strengthens students’ note-taking abilities, in particular letting those with less background learn from their classmates. It gives Harbin, who creates and owns the note-taking document, a window into how well students understand the material throughout the term. That’s especially useful at a service academy, she says, since students’ schedules make it hard for them to attend office hours.

Shared note-taking also encourages students to collaborate, helping build community in the classroom. Still, Harbin cautions, no one technique can accomplish this all on its own. She has a number of other practices, like calling students by their first names — not the last names or courtesy titles normally used at the academy — that help build relationships.

Having students take collaborative notes even changed Harbin’s teaching: She added more consistent structure to her lectures to help students take good notes. Harbin created three recurring slides, one describing upcoming topics and assignments, one detailing what she would cover that day, and one raising a question. During some class periods, Harbin would have students respond in writing to the prompt at the start of class and discuss their initial answers and whether or not they had changed at the end. She noticed that students often included those questions in their notes, helping them engage in the kind of thinking they’d be asked to demonstrate in their exams.

Harbin wrote her paper before the pandemic, but she thinks that collaborative note-taking could help solve some of the teaching challenges the coronavirus presents.

Students may have a heightened need for connection with their classmates. For them, Harbin says, having a group assignment “can bring life and community to what otherwise might be just a sterile Zoom meeting.” For instructors, a shared document that all students consult regularly is a good place to provide feedback.

Harbin has gotten questions, she says, on whether the shared notes could enable students to cheat, especially in remote learning. As the holder of the Google doc, Harbin is able to prevent students from accessing it during the final.

The more important issue, she says, is what kind of exam students are taking. Her approach is to let students use their own notes — which can be a synthesis of the shared notes — during the exam, and then ask questions whose answers aren’t contained there. Harbin tells her students: “Questions are just going to be harder, and you’re going to have to think.”

It seems that finding ways for students to work together will be both more important and more difficult this fall. What strategies are you planning to use? Let me know at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and your response may appear in a future newsletter.

Creating ‘Social Moments’

After classes moved online this spring, Zachary Nowak found himself missing the organic, informal social moments students usually had around the edges of class. Moments like “the three minutes before class talking to your neighbor about a movie, the chat during a break about lunch, the walk over toward the library after class, the meet-up later to study for my class and maybe another one, too,” Nowak, a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University, explained in an email to me.

He’s done some thinking about how to recreate such moments in an online course. “One of my ideas is to incentivize, with part of the course's grade,” he wrote, “social activities that have little or nothing to do with the class.” He’s thought about giving students points for organizing Zoom meet-ups on particular topics — and for attending one another’s. “Sure, it's artificial, but it might spark other interactions, the flywheel energy to start a virtuous cycle of social (digital) interactions.”

What do you think of Nowak’s idea? Have you found other ways to help students connect informally in an online course? Share your thoughts at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and they may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • Is the Hyflex model — in which professors teach concurrently to students in the classroom and beaming in online — the answer to colleges’ challenges this fall, or the worst of both worlds? Beth unpacks the debate in this new article. You may also want to revisit last week’s Teaching newsletter on practical tips for hybrid teaching.
  • There’s still stigma around online courses, especially in the humanities. In this recent piece for The Chronicle, Lee Skallerup Bessette, who is a learning-design specialist at Georgetown University, explains why, and shares several examples of specific “online courses that students say have had a major impact on their education and lives.”

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us:

dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beckie

Correction (7/20/2020, 5:01 p.m.): An earlier version of this newsletter said Zachary Nowak was a college fellow at Harvard University. He is a lecturer. This newsletter has been updated to reflect this change.

Beckie Supiano writes about teaching, learning, and the human interactions that shape them. Follow her on Twitter @becksup, or drop her a line at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.