Friday, October 25, 2013

Does hand-writing their notes help students learn better?

Handwritten excerpt from Tennyson's "Mariana"
At today's Pedagogy Discussion Group (hosted by the TennTLC), amid the discussion of testing as a learning activity, someone brought up the claim that hand-writing one's notes aids in memory retention. I have found this personally to be true. When I studied for tests, I hand-wrote my notes. I made copies of notes by hand. I created a huge chalkboard in my head and imagined myself carving formulae into it with a glowing gold pen. When it came time to take the test, I knew where on the board to "look." I could remember writing out the poems and definitions. I could mentally envision my writing and the papers. I always thought that the benefit was primarily spatial or visual. But the very act of hand-writing may be responsible.

A study by Jean-Luc Velay at the University of Versailles found "that different parts of the brain are activated when we read letters we have learned by handwriting" (Science Daily). In an article co-written with Velay (discussed in the same Science Daily article), the University of Stavenger's Anne Mangen suggests that something is lost when students type instead of hand-write. However, the full connections between sensory motor skills and cognition are not yet understood.

Many of my students type their notes during class. There's good reason: typing is faster, and many of them can't write legibly in cursive. The notes can be saved to the cloud and opened on a variety of devices, making studying much more convenient. I've been encouraging this practice because of the convenience and the environmental benefits of the "paperless classroom." But have I been doing them a disservice?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Instructions Activity for Technical Writing Class

The “you” attitude is an essential element in writing definitions, descriptions, and instructions. The writer must guess what information the audience already has and balance that against what is needed to accomplish the document’s purpose. Although writing instructions is the most advanced of these tasks, there is a secret weapon: usability testing. In this exercise, students write a set of instructions then exchange them with another group for testing.

  1. Examine the contents of the bag given to you. Spend approximately 10 minutes designing a structure of 20-40 pieces. Give this structure a name and take a picture of it.
  2. Write verbal instructions so that someone else can copy your design. Use words only, no graphics.
  3. Review your instructions according to the checklist in Markel, pp. 388-89.
  4. Dismantle your creation. Trade instructions and materials with another group.
  5. Each group recreates the original structure. Compare the finished project to the picture.
  6. Compare notes with the other group. Where were you confused? Was any information extraneous?
  7. Revise your instructions, then post them to the Discussion Board along with the picture, if possible.
From this activity, students said they learned that what's clear to one person is confusing to another; to watch for ambiguity; and to take nothing for granted.