Skip to content

A Letter to Freshmen

August 4, 2011

This summer, I have been taking classes that I should have taken at the beginning of my college career….Oh well. Whereas most of my friends have graduated and are now entering the adult working life (suckers!), I get to commiserate with the next generation of students.

Yes, that’s right. Not only am I taking freshmen level courses in my graduate year of college, but to add insult to injury, I have to take these classes with…actual freshmen!

But instead of whining about my situation, I would rather be constructive about things. After all, as a wiser and more mature student, I ought provide guidance to my protégés. And so I shall. Today, I will write a letter to freshmen.

Dear Freshmen,

Put away those laptops. You aren’t fooling anyone. Everyone can see that you are surfing Facebook or watching a YouTube video…and while they don’t really care, you should. Because it’s not helping your grade, and you are paying several thousands of dollars each year for this privilege.

College Class

There is almost no conceivable way for your laptop to be the most effective way for you to be spending your class time. I will explain.

Even when I see you filling out a word document with the topic of today’s lecture, I fear that you are failing to take advantage of a great learning mechanism: the written word.

You may protest: you are writing the words…in your word document. But typing is not writing. Writing by hand reinforces the material, while typing the material simply doesn’t engage those parts of your brain [PDF alert].

Writing is too slow, you say? Learn to write more quickly, even if you must develop your own kind of shorthand.

This advice for writing carries to your other study habits. I see so many students who simply highlight parts of textbooks …and I wonder what they think they are getting from the exercise. There is no engagement of anything when you simply read and highlight. But writing…that requires mental concentration. Physical coordination. If you study by writing, you will always even be aware of exactly when you are too tired to continue to study.

I have read a little bit about different learning styles, and while I don’t know so much as to make this a part of my letter, I will point out that many people may underestimate their potential for learning best through writing.

No one told me even to consider that writing might be the way I retain information best…I just stumbled upon the discovery. But what a discovery it was! When I write my notes, I often don’t even need to reread them, because it’s the writing that solidifies the material for me. I can read a section of a textbook without processing, without digesting …but to rewrite that section into my own words rewires care. Writing forces me to take that level of care in a way that reading (or even worse,  passing listening,)  does not.

Maybe you get my point. Writing is a big deal. We cannot forget this just because there is convenient technology at our fingertips.

But while writing is important, how you write is also important.

I don’t understand note cards.

Note cards, in my opinion, silo off knowledge and facts. As if you were learning a hundred discrete points for an exam. And who knows, maybe in the past your teachers tested you by asking for each of those disparate points one by one.

But if this is how your educational career has tended so far, then shame on those who have so disserviced you. For there will come a point where this compartmentalized view will no longer take you any further.

Context. That is the goal in studying. Contextualization, not compartmentalization. And context demands more space to breathe than a note card.

Here’s a pro tip. You very rarely need to memorize beyond a certain basic point. After you know the functional vocabulary and first axioms of a subject, building upon those should be based on that internal logic, not on sheer mental force.

The reason for this is because when you are memorizing, you are often learning what. You may be learning how as well. But you probably aren’t learning why. And so when you come to a test, you have to regurgitate whats and hows, but if you have forgotten any of this, you can’t reason out to the answer because you don’t know why.

So notes should be about associations, connections, making sense of what appears to be disparate points.

I mean…right now, I’m taking a geography course. Every so often, the geography professor will say, “You just have to learn this” (usually referring to, say, climate patterns.) But the thing is…climate patterns aren’t arbitrary. Climatology as a field of study is based upon axioms (even if not perfectly understood) that the geography teacher didn’t necessarily explain (so that’s why they may seem arbitrary), but one can “figure” out what patterns should apply based on awareness of fundamental principles and vocabulary. And when there appear to be oddities, then that probably means there is a geographical feature that was missed (for example, this area is particular dry because it’s the lee side of a mountain: the rainshadow. But the mountain that blocks the rain is covered in a different section of the course.) To know what “lee side” and “rainshadow” mean are fundamental vocabulary, but to figure out why they work that way is something else.

So, note cards? I just don’t get them. But expansive maps of information? Diagrams and charts and arrows and pictures and cause-and-effects and timelines? These make sense.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but don’t just learn from me what you should be going for or how you can get it. Try it for yourself and learn why it works.


Andrew S


From → Uncategorized

  1. Thank you for taking time to distill some of this information. I wish I had more like that when I started school.

  2. Already, I would like yo make one addendum or retraction. Since I’m a silly business major, I recognize that some very different subjects may require quite different study methods. Some subjects may in fact be most amenable to note cards.

    But I am willing to bet that freshmen level geography or poli sci aren’t two of these.

  3. Andrew,

    That was quite the read, though I disagree to an extent. I used a netbook starting in freshmen year to senior year and rarely ever used it for Facebook (ask Cora lol) or anything outside the classes immediate needs. I type far faster than long-hand (105 WPM), and while I respect the written language and your opinion about reinforcement of knowledge, I don’t believe a sweeping generalization in regards to not using laptops should be applied.

    Before I continue, let me preface; I love writing. I typically wrote, due to the nature of my classes, over 20 pages of research text each week. I’m ‘that guy’ who looks forward to essay questions on tests. So far, I’ve kept a 3.8 GPA average throughout my college career with the vast majority of it using a netbook for taking notes.

    That being said, I only disagree partially with what you’ve written Andrew. That is to say, I think you’re right, except perhaps it may be a logical fallacy to assume all freshmen should ignore the keystroke for pencil and paper. There is no doubt in my mind that the majority of students use their laptops for internet surfing or instant messaging during class, but I think that it isn’t the laptop at fault, but instead a lack of general discipline on part of the student. Of course that leads into a much more specific discussion, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Overall, great read Andrew. I knew the first time I met you that you would be a fun person to debate with 🙂

  4. Aaron,

    I think pointing out that you type fast than you hand write is precisely my point. Typing is *easy*. There’s no sweat equity to it (when studying). So it’s a matter of how much exactly you respect the argument about reinforcement of knowledge, and how much you think it merely “opinion” ;).

    My argument is several-fold. The first is as you’ve addressed: laptops tend to be a distraction to studying. This is, as you point out, because of a lack of general discipline that reaches beyond the use of technology (e.g., they certainly could be doodling and writing notes to their friends by hand as well, because the paper medium does not do anything to address a distracted or uncultivated mind.)

    However, my second point is that from an intrinsic level, typing is a cheap way to reinforce material. There is nothing in the muscle act of typing an “a” vs. a “b” or whatever letter to reinforce the letters, words, etc., being typed from a neurological and psychological perspective. But there certainly is something in the muscle memory for writing — especially if writing extends to visual representations of the materials, connections between material, etc., It’s kinda like the psychological research that shows that replicating many aspects of the location you’ve studied in (e.g., smells, particular sounds, etc.,) for the test environment improves memory because the facts one is trying to remember are ‘piggybacked’ with these easier-to-remember environmental cues.

    UNLESS you’re advocating for a kind of tablet-and-pen study system, or an enhanced technological pen (like those ones that record audio along with writing, etc.), then this is a problem that the technology simply cannot overcome and, in fact, that the technology perpetuates.

    (P.S., it feels pretty weird for me to be taking the “luddite” position in a debate like this. haha)

  5. Andrew,

    I suppose then you and I are on the same page excluding our “opinion” on how humans retain and reinforce knowledge. I understand your point that through muscle memory, the written word helps us understand what it is we’re writing about. However, I believe that using a keyboard can accomplish that same task, but only faster.

    **Note: This pertains to English only – addressed later***

    When you’re writing with a pencil or pen, you’re making complex motions that stimulate the brain. That is to say, when you write the letter “T”, your brain is registering two motions that assumes the letter “T”. When you write the letter “X”, your brain also recognizes two motions, but different enough to register the letter “X”. The keyboard functions in a similar way. While you are only pressing one key, your finger position dictates which letter you specifically press. Your brain recognizes these differences just as your brain does with written motion. That is why there is no ‘cheap’ way to reinforce material, only a choice in how you approach note taking.

    Now it would be a fallacy for me to say that my theory is synonymous with every written language. In fact, I’d right out disagree with myself if I used Chinese characters as an example. The vocabulary of characters I’ve learned from Cora and her mom, both written and verbalized, reflect to me a level of complexity in the Chinese language that English can’t begin to compare. History showed that between 0 AD to 1000 AD, academic schools in Southeast Asia (ranging from China itself to Vietnam *Including what was once Champa*, Laos, etc), that the number of Chinese characters a person knew dictated their professional career in politics and government. Entire villages would support one student to bring wealth and trade to their town in return.

    Sorry, I went a little off-topic, but there was a point. I believe the Chinese language would benefit more so in written note taking compared to the infinitely less difficult English alphabet. While at the core, the basic value of written motion between any language in terms of reinforcement are the same. However, I believe that some languages are ranked above others in complexity and therefore require higher levels of reinforcement (through written means). Languages such as English can be reinforced, in my opinion, easily through key strokes equally as pen strokes.

    Side note: I am fluent in Hebrew and Latin. Cantonese is hands down the most difficult language I’ve tackled mostly due to pronunciation issues. One of my dads clients works in Zurich and is a polyglot (English, German, French, Italian, and Chinese **Both Mandarin and Cantonese**). I’ve met this guy before and he just amazes me at his ability to learn new languages.

    P.s. Off to make some dinner. AC unit is acting up, and Houston is STILL riding this heat wave…. /le sigh

  6. Aaron,

    While you are only pressing one key, your finger position dictates which letter you specifically press. Your brain recognizes these differences just as your brain does with written motion.

    This would be a great counterpoint, but empirically, the data just don’t support that position. Or, this, which I suspect is talking about the same article: found here [PDF alert on that last link]. And this should make sense even conceptually. Physically making two lines for “x” or “t” involves a different level of activity than hovering a finger over a particular spot on keyboard and pressing down. if what you said were right, then we would expect that people who hunt and peck retain something a bit different than those who type with standard posture…that people who use QWERTY retain something a bit different than those who use Dvorak, that extremely minute variations in finger angulation have a huge impact on the brain. But we don’t see this, and even more, we don’t intuit that we *should* see this.

    This applies to English, of course, but it is an even STRONGER case when you get to something like Chinese. Although it should be noted still that Chinese writing involves different parts of the brain than English/Roman letters…to the extent that “dyslexic” kinds of conditions have different neurological bases.

    So, I would take your point here and say that it’s not that Chinese benefits from handwriting *in contrast to* Latin/Roman scripts…but that the Chinese example is an amplification of what already is noted with Latin/Roman scripts.

    P.S. blogs aren’t like IM conversations. It’s ok if you don’t respond immediately, because the blog will always be there. haha about your AC though; you should get that fixed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: