The Cantankerous Critic: “Don’t Take Notes!

By Scott Keith

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This week I have reminded myself of what Pastor Koch has asked me to do here; be a critic. As I see all of the students hustling and bustling around engaging in last minute cramming in order to successfully navigate their final exams this week, something has once more occurred to me: stop just taking notes! Our children have been taught to take down and regurgitate facts in order to pass standardized tests that have little to do with becoming educated, let alone success in college or in life. The end 1318260103-test-takingresult is that instead of engaging the topics of the courses they have been instructed in all semester by competent, if not wonderful professors, they are attempting to cram every piece of raw data they possible can into as little amount of time as possible. So what is the problem? The problem is that many of their final exams, here at the college level, will ask them to intellectually engage, examine, and critique the information, not just spit it back out. A college exam, if done well, will not simply ask: “did you memorize the material?” Rather that examine almost certainly will at some point, ask: “do you know what has been discussed in an organic and qualitative way?” In other words: “have you engaged the material?” Simply taking notes does not accomplish this, being involved in the conversation and in their lives and vocations as students, accomplishes that task.

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Some months ago this very clear realization was brought to my attention by my own 18 year old college freshman, Caleb, while we were sitting and eating Mexican food. After that conversation I asked him to send me some of his thoughts. This is what he had to say: “Taking notes in university classes can be detrimental to education. Often students will find themselves so focused on taking notes and writing down key words that they miss the concepts being taught. This leads to students who do not understand course material and inevitably bomb tests and quizzes, when the key word they wrote down isn’t present. Rather than focusing on taking notes students should engage their classes with good listening and participation, through questions and discussion. There is no purpose in knowing random topics that you cannot apply or connect to the subject matter and your life.”

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In other words, education, as with most things in life, does not simply entail showing up and taking notes. We have been taught, and in turn have taught this generation, that showing up and writing things down equals success. Showing up is not success. Simply taking notes or knowing the data is not success. Showing up is many times not even half of the battle. Engaging life and vocation wholly and freely under the cross of Christ is our struggle this side of glory. We need to talk to one another, and engage with one another, in meaningful conversation in order to learn from one another and apply that now, not bare content, to the matter of life. Participation in college, as with participation in life and participation in Christian vocation, does not equate to simply showing up and taking notes. In fact, the worst thing we can ever do in our education, our work, or in our families is to just show up and record (via notes or our imperfect memories) what is going on around us devoid of any sort of meaningful engagement. Listen to the words of one eighteen year old who helped me figure some of this out one day over tacos. “There is no purpose in knowing random topics that you cannot apply or connect to the subject matter and your life.”

There is no use in knowing the subject matter of our life, or our faith, if we are unwilling to participate enough to apply that content to the subject matter of our jointly shared lives lived freely under the cross of Christ. So take notes if you really need to, in school as in day to day life, but don’t just show up and don’t just take notes. And while we’re at it, let’s teach our kids to do more than show up and take notes as well. Rather, we ought teach our children to live freely on account of what Christ has done for them in service and meaningful engagement with one another.