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Zombie student manipulation of symbols/taking of course notes

As with those who manipulate symbols without reflective thought, that Andrew raised, I was recently thinking abouts students who avoid any distraction that might arise by their thinking about what the lecturer is talking about – so that they are sure to get the notes just right.

When I was a student I would sometimes make a deal where someone else would take the notes and I would just listen – then I would correct the notes they took for misconceptions later – there were almost always quite a few.

But not to be disparaging of students – they learned this somewhere/how and there must be advantages.

In fact – in someways math is a discouragement of thinking – replacing thinking with symbol manipulation thats assured to avoid wrong answers … to the now zombified assumptions.



  1. Kaiser says:

    What about those professors who ask students to "script" their lectures? Is there an educational objective to this activity?

  2. Ted says:

    That really only happens if you have a terrible math teacher. If you have a math teacher that actually has you think about what you are doing before you do it, then it won't just be zombie manipulation. If you have a good math teacher you do actually think about it. I think if teachers would do things like trace the historical origins of thought (i.e. attaching the idea of polynomial equation solving to the historical origins of solving for side lengths and areas of complex geometric figures); proving theorems / results that are appropriate ; giving intuition / heuristics for theorems / results you can't prove ; and real application problems that actually make you think – not solve the same problem as you did before except instead of "x" you are solving for "height of ladder." If teachers did that you wouldn't have some many "zombie manipulators."

  3. Dominic Brown says:

    On manipulation of form, as a safer, easier alternative to genuine thought, Edward Tufte offers this wonderful quote in Beautiful Evidence:

    First you establish the traditional ‘two views’ of the question. You then put forward a common-sensical justification of the one, only to refute it by the other. Finally, you send them both packing by the use of a third interpretation, in which both the others are shown to be equally unsatisfactory. Certain verbal maneouvres enable you to line up the traditional ‘antitheses’ as complementary aspects of a single reality: form and substance, content and container, appearance and reality, essence and existence, continuity and discontinuity, and so on. Before long the exercise becomes the merest verbalizing, reflection gives place to a kind of superior punning, and the ‘accomplished philosopher’ may be recognized by the ingenuity with which he makes ever-bolder play with assonance, ambiguity, and the use of those words which sound alike and yet bear quite different meanings.

    (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Paris, 1955; London 1961), 54.)

  4. John says:

    The limited experimental evidence that does exist suggests the opposite effect. In one experiment, those assigned to the non-notetaking group recalled information and symbols better. But the group assigned to take notes made wider connections to the other types of knowledge they had. Notetaking is not necessarily rote.

    Two experiments investigated the generative hypothesis of how note-taking affects the learner's cognitive processing during encoding. Ss were required to take notes or not take notes while viewing a videotaped lecture on automobile engines and were then administered 4 posttests. In Exp I, 40 11th graders who had no prior experience with the lecture material served as Ss. Results reveal a pattern of interaction in which note-takers performed better than those who did not take notes on far-transfer tasks such as problem solving but worse on near-transfer tasks such as fact retention and verbatim recognition. Findings from Exp II, with 89 undergraduates (60 of whom were unfamiliar and 29 of whom were familiar with the lecture material), indicate that the same pattern occurred for Ss who were moderately familiar with the material but not for Ss who were highly familiar. Other treatments of Exp II such as taking summary notes or answering conceptual questions during breaks in the lecture produced results similar to those of note-taking. Results are consistent with M. C. Wittrock's (1974) idea that note-taking can be a generative activity that encourages students to build connections between what is presented and what they already know.

  5. ceolaf says:

    This is something different than the other idea.

    This is about what we actually traing to do by rewarding them when they do it.

    Out system rewards students who are able to regurgitate the "facts" and opions of their teachers. They are not rewarded for truly original or challenging ideas — or at most are rewarded quite rarely. Thus, it becomes more important to be able to express as much of it as possible as closely to how the instructor presents it than deeply understanding any of it, let alone care about the implications of what they are "learning."

    Not so sure? Read the education classic Horace's Compromise, the Ted Sizer.

  6. K? O'Rourke says:

    Dominic: Believe Greimas… would be better example than Claude Lévi-Strauss. Used his stuff as a graduate student and its much a more rigorous application of rules to get a literary interpretation. The local expert was Paul Perron who did his undergrad in math and he commented that most literary critics found it very difficult to follow explicite rules. Claude Lévi-Strauss can be made explicit in that – as mentioned once before on this blog – he had a graduate student run a computer progarm that _wrote_ a paper that fooled Claude Lévi-Strauss into thinking he had actually written it.


  7. K? O'Rourke says:

    ceolaf: you put it more clearly than me
    John: evidence is annoying ;-)
    Even limited amounts of selectively reported evidence can remind us far too quickly that our opinions on empirical matters are always wrong.

    Dealing with evidence is hard, and we both suspect it is limited (and perhaps never been replicated by another group) but allow me to venture being wrong again

    I was most concerned about this when students are least familiar with the material and writing (like anything else) always has an effect and it was nice to see some summary writing makes up for the _continuous_ note taking.


  8. Megan Pledger says:

    I think students always get better rewards for proving a lecturers ideas than disproving them.

    Looking in from a far, I think the system that rewards students for regurgitating facts are the big national multi-choice exams.

    Multi-choice exams tend to rely on definitional type questions and it's usually subtle differences in the way the definition is worded that is used to find the best students. While the best students who understand do well, students who can regurgitate the definition can do well also.

    I dislike mutli-choise exams because without showing working the teacher can't see why a student is going wrong.