The Cantankerous Critic: “Don’t Take Notes!”

By Scott Keith


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.


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.”


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.

3 thoughts on “The Cantankerous Critic: “Don’t Take Notes!”

  1. Kudos to Caleb for realizing this in his first year at college. One might think that this only applies to more philosophical or subjective topics, but I found it to be very true in math and science as well. Memorizing formulas and equations does not equal knowledge. A student has to truly understand the concepts internally before they can apply the tools they have learned.


  2. This is brilliant! I used to take such copious notes and realized that my application of those notes was terrible. I could learn the facts and spit them back, but why it mattered, I couldn’t tell you. I think I’ve gotten better (thanks to sitting through Symposiums and trying to take nuggets of info back home with me). Now I try and interact with the speaker with pen and paper and find that so much more sticks. It is refreshing to see an encouragement towards this style of thinking, learning, and paying attention!

    Especially appreciate the tie in with the faith too. I have the confirmands do “sermon reports.” With the hope that they work on application of the sermon, rather than just jotting down what I’ve said. Not sure if they’re picking up on it always, but in every sermon I have them figure out the main idea, how it applies to their life personally, and what (if anything) would they want to share from that sermon with their family or friends. It has to be better than them just spitting back to me in note form, what I’ve already said..

    If the faith just is a bunch of memorized facts, it will quickly be forgotten or cast aside, the youth (and adults of today) need to interact with this faith, grow in it, be challenged in it and by, not just sit back, take notes, and regurgitate what they heard preached/taught. Application in our vocations is huge. I hope it is something that can be recaptured today!

    Thanks Scott!


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