There is signal and there is noise

Often, the two are difficult to separate:

This story in The Times Higher Education outlines how a professor at Lehigh University saw that his students who brought laptops didn’t do as well on tests as students who took notes the old-fashioned way. The story also digs into some neurological research that says the same thing.

Essentially, our brains seem to work a little like our ears do in this respect. If you are supposed to listen to a sound, you can do it much more easily when fewer other sounds are made around you, especially if those other sounds are more pleasant or more interesting than the one you are supposed to listen to. I, for example, would pay attention to the air conditioner if you told me that’s what I was supposed to do. But if, say, Angie Harmon began talking in the background, I would pretty quickly abandon the air conditioner for a sound that is of far more interest to me.

Angie HarmonI can multitask, sort of, but not especially well. In fact, I have basically the same issue as does Microsoft Windows: if more than one task is running, one of them gets focus, and the others are shunted into the background until such time as I can manually intervene to bring them up. I tend not to listen to the A/C; in fact, given the nature of Oklahoma summers, I don’t notice it until it cycles off. There are times when this doesn’t happen for several hours, at which time I will be startled by the sudden reduction in background noise. I am reasonably certain, though, that if Angie Harmon were to happen onto my premises, she would have my undivided attention for the duration.



  1. fillyjonk »

    5 June 2011 · 4:53 pm

    The thing with the laptop vs. writing notes may also be more than just “the students are messing around on Facebook while in class” (though that happens too); there’s research I’ve read that says the more “channels” you use to get something into the brain, the better it sticks, and apparently forming the words of notes with handwriting is a better stickifier of knowledge than tapping keys on a keyboard. Some people call it “kinesthetic memory.”

    I have also been known to force myself to take notes in boring meetings, just so I don’t have that moment of terror of someone asking me for my opinion on something, just to realize I’ve been totally zoned out for the past 20 minutes.

  2. CGHill »

    5 June 2011 · 5:01 pm

    I learned about taking notes the hard way, before I ever got into high school. Since I’m also somewhat susceptible to zoning out, it’s a good thing that I did.

  3. Brett »

    5 June 2011 · 7:47 pm

    Un. Di. Vi. Ded.

  4. McGehee »

    6 June 2011 · 9:51 am

    Those — I mean, that reminds me: isn’t it about time “Rizzoli & Isles” turned up on the schedule again?

  5. nightfly »

    6 June 2011 · 10:49 am

    So… Rule 5 is officially SCIENCE! Also, easy on the eyes.

  6. sya »

    6 June 2011 · 12:49 pm

    I take notes by hand, but I always feel stupid doing so. It’s because so many other people don’t take notes, let alone take notes on a laptop. And I just assume that unlike me, everyone else has awesome powers of information retention by just listening to a lecture.

  7. fillyjonk »

    6 June 2011 · 4:21 pm

    Sya, as a bio prof, I can tell you it’s NOT the “stupid” people who are the ones taking notes. Quite the opposite, actually. The people who assume they have awesome powers of information retention just by listening almost never do. (I had one colleague in grad school who was severely dyslexic and dysgraphic, and he had trained himself to remember what he had heard without recourse to notes – he said he wouldn’t have been able to read them after he wrote them anyway – but he was very much the exception.)

  8. Tatyana »

    6 June 2011 · 6:11 pm

    Ah, that is so gratifying to read. I am relieved.
    Last year I was taking a CE course in 3D Visualization (CAD+Revit+3SMax Studio) and I was about the only one in class who tried to take notes. 3 other people were not scribbling things down, though – they were using tape recorders. The rest were just listening.
    The lecturer was not making allowances for taking notes. He was progressing in very quick pace, showing some sequence on the wall screen which we were supposed to simultaneously repeat on our workstations, there was simply no time to comprehend anything or rephrase or shorthand while taking down. I felt very inadequate. Don’t know what other took away from those lectures, I can tell you: I didn’t, much.

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