Across the country, increasing numbers of students attend class acting as if they possess perfect and total recall. Maybe these students are "Tomorrow People," mutants, the next stage in human evolution. Or maybe they all completed that memory course sold in infomercials, the one featuring what's-his-name.
That must be the answer because these students no longer take notes during lecture or class discussion.
In an encyclopedia read in my youth, the entry on "college" was illustrated by a picture of diligent students, pens on note pads, with a caption that "Four years of college produces notebooks filled with important information from courses." That might have been true then, but not now. Today, students are more likely to sit with textbooks open and hi-liter markers in hand, coloring sentences bright colors where the instructor mentions it as important. And when class is through, they sell the book.
To some faculty, these "new" classroom habits are engendered by the textbook publishers' packaged course materials used by many instructors, teaching assistants and lazy faculty. Logically, when increasing numbers of teachers use the unaltered textbook-provided data banks for exam questions, the students learn that they only need to read the text and memorize the printed lists. Notes are unnecessary in these classes, and lectures themselves are superfluous. And, compounding the problem, some teachers do little more than read the book to the class: "This is what will be on the exam!"
Maybe teaching has become too easy or too unimportant for too many faculty. And faculty are in the strange position of being paid to teach, while how much they are paid is mostly based on what they do when not teaching.
For ego support, it is easier to look toward research. Articles we can count. Citations we can read. Faculty get prestige from articles, conferences, colleagues and consulting. And such things are the primary basis for starting salaries, promotion, tenure and merit pay raises. When teaching is reviewed, the tendency is to look to the easy measurements, such as teacher evaluation number scores or the generation of student credit hours for our administration's body counts.
A Valdosta State history professor writing his "random thoughts" on internet bulletin boards says that, when asked what he teaches, he says "students." And he has numerous compelling stories of his concern for undergraduates' intellectual and personal growth. But his contacts take a great deal of time, and too many universities do not reward or recognize such efforts. As Upton Sinclair wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
While it is easy to say the faculty do not care, one must realize that the reward system of many universities encourages not caring about teaching. It is something to be done, to be measured. A person once told me that a place which claims to be a teaching school is merely saying "We don't do much research here," not that the faculty are rewarded for serious efforts in meeting with students, designing courses, providing detailed grading feedback and developing students' abilities to write and think and grow.
It is also important to get a large number of students in the classes and many students appear to like easy tests and classes that can be passed without taking lecture notes.
After completing a guest lecture at another university, I found myself outside the classroom of the instructor that marketing majors there had recently voted as best teacher. And so I listened. He was reading the student newspaper to the class, using it as a springboard for personal stories and jokes, barely mentioning any course material. I was later told that his exams were all multiple choice questions copied directly from the textbook teachers' manual. This example might seem extreme, but many universities have a popular Dr. Feelgood whose courses are empty of substantive content. There exist department heads who tell junior faculty to give easier exams to increase enrollments.
But maybe the problem is more basic than that. We know why the students are there, but we don't tell them the truth of what education really means for their lives and careers. Since students are seldom told why they should learn, they often misunderstand the importance of education, lecture notes, or what they might take away from the classroom experience.
Most people today go to college because they are interested in jobs. General education goals of abilities to think and write clearly have job value, but students are rarely told how or why. It is easier to just sell them the certification.
Of course, this has spread well beyond the confines of the colleges of business. At a friend's meeting of her university's curriculum committee, an English professor asserted that majors and minors provide students with statements of job certification. "Excuse me?" my friend protested, "We all know that except for some areas of engineering or education, none of our majors actually `certify' anything on the job market."
"Of course," the English faculty member replied, "but statements of certification is what our students want and, since they are our customers, we will give it to them."
Department brochures, advisors and many faculty say the value of the degree is in the jobs related to the major. For the degree, they must get credit in certain courses, so the credit itself is all that matters. Classes are to be endured, like fraternity hazing of a generation past.
Faculty fail to strongly and repeatedly tell students that the abilities to think and write clearly are more important than the textbook's "to do" checklists. In reality, a successful marketing career requires a facile an educated mind, not specific information that any book might contain.
The students will not realize this until their teachers tell them the truth and students failure to take lecture notes might be a result of what they are not told. In a "skills" class, the lecture notes often become unnecessary. As part of education, notes from class could be treasured and serve as a reference for many years in the future.