Teaching just aint that easy…

By Stacy Soappman, PT, DSc, COMT, FAAOMPT

I have a confession.  I like words.  I mean, I really like words.  Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you that I like words.  I am still in shock and awe that when I teach I actually get paid to talk and use my words.  What could be better to a person who loves words then to get paid to talk?  If you ask my students, they will tell you that I have an extraordinary talent for using a lot of words in a short period of time…a.k.a…I talk fast.  This is what leads me to my conundrum.  How do I get my students to learn and assimilate what I am trying to teach them when they are trying to write in such a frantic tizzy to keep up with the thought I had 5 minutes ago?    The first step to correcting a problem is admitting there is a problem. 

Well, I think I covered that in the first few sentences here.  The next step is trying to correct the behavior.  I have tried talking slower, but when I get excited (and NAIOMT stuff is just so amazingly exciting – no sarcasm intended)  I can’t help myself and my speed picks up again.  Since that tactic is obviously not working, I decided to save my students from a lifetime of carpel tunnel and glazed eyes and write everything down in my course manual that they needed to know for the class.  That way they could focus on my words instead of trying to frantically write.  I thought that was a brilliant idea.  I was happy, and my students were happy.  But am I fully maximizing their learning potential by making them “passive” learners who can just sit there and try to digest the information?

I recently came across the following study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer.  In their study, they compared the learning and assimilation of knowledge of students who had to take notes the “old fashioned way” with paper and pencil to students who took notes on their lap tops.  Their findings demonstrated that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more.

“Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops. “(1)

The researchers postulate that because writing by hand requires more time, the student cannot possibly write down every word the professor is saying.  They have to listen, condense the knowledge, assimilate and organize it in their brains, and then write it out.  With typing, the student can be passively typing and never have to “think” about what they are typing.  In today’s culture, everyone thinks more is better – but is it?  In the NAIOMT system, one of our goals as instructors is to prepare students for their exams.  Students want everything written down so they can study it and reread it as many times as possible.  Regarding tests, Mueller and Oppenheimer go on to say:

“When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants” (1)

So is less better in this instance?  It would certainly make my life much easier if it was.  It takes me about 6 months to put together a course manual.  When I sit down to do it, I pull out everything I have on the subject, which usually includes course manuals from about 5-6 other NAIOMT faculty.  Why reinvent the wheel when others have done it so brilliantly before me?  But here-in lies part of the problem with loving words.  I can’t stop writing when I have all that exciting knowledge in front of me.  So my course manuals tend to be quite large – almost 400 pages large for my level I manual.

One of my main mentors has been Erl Pettman.  For those of you who have taken a class from him, you know that he has the wonderful gift of being able to talk for 6 days on a complex subject without ever opening a book, using a power point presentation, or looking at his notes.  In comparison to my 400 pages, my level I course manual from Erl is approximately 86 pages.  And often those pages are largely blank with loose bullet points where you need to write in the information as he is presenting it.  I stock up on pens that are easy to write with before Erl’s classes.  I have gone through 2 pens and 51 pages of paper in just one class.   Kudos to Erl for once again being ahead of his time by having us write everything down. 

Am I ready, and are my students ready, for me to have an 86 page course manual?  I don’t think so.  It is going to take a lot of sedatives to slow me down to the point that their writing could possibly keep up with the rate of my talking.  What this study has done, though, is help me to have more silence in the room to allow people to think about what I have just said and jot down some thoughts to help improve their learning.  And maybe after 40 years of practice, I will be able to do an “Erl” and talk slowly with less writing.  That is a BIG maybe, but I am working on it.

So what do you think?  More?  Less? What is your learning style?  What do you prefer?

  1. May C: A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop. Scientific America. 

2 thoughts on “Teaching just aint that easy…

  1. Stacy,
    Something in between every word written down and only outline information would be good. I would prefer the ‘more fully detailed’ manual to be sure it is correctly written down. I prefer to take few to no notes and focus on listening to and digesting the concepts. Even if all is provided, having some space to jot a thought, question or idea is helpful along with a hi-liter to emphasize a key concept or area to go back to review due to confusion upon the initial hearing. Either way passive only is not my mode …. jotting the key concept and not worrying about getting every word or thought down would be really nice. More confidence then in knowing that when you review, your notes have some completeness and accuracy. The frustration I have had in the past is finding manuals ‘unhelpful’ for review due to no details written down in an area, because they were ‘missed’ by the hand writing scribe or put down possible wrong or in a way that is meaningless when reviewed. Or… perhaps that needed detail was not covered or it was covered during a lab demonstration when all eyes are transfixed and scribing time is relegated to after and therefore incomplete.

    As for learning the concepts and retaining information, nothing can replace the stories, examples, illustrations that draw in all your senses and ‘burn’ an image into your brain for better recall. I often hear Erl’s voice in my head through a phrase or patient illustration to help me pull together some information as I work through a patient problem, treatment technique or strategy. (Frequent video watching also contributes to this!) Fortunately that is a helpful and positive benefit to actual class time. By far more enriching than only reading a manual – detailed or not!

    I’d love to see your manuals! There are several areas that I have questions on and the details are just missing……..?.!


  2. Hi Bambi, Thanks for the comments. I had to smile when you said you hear Erl in your head. I often hear him also, and when I am teaching I have caught myself pronouncing “cervical” or “musculoskeletal” in his “special” way. To me is makes sense but my class just looks at me like I am crazy.
    I hear your frustration with missing the details when trying to furiously take notes while a teacher is talking or trying to reconstruct the technique, in words, after watching it being done. This is partially why my course manuals are so long. However, in defense of those instructors, whose notebook are more sparse, I was able to pass all my exams with those course manuals and when I am trying to look something up those are the notebooks I turn to first.
    As for achieving a good balance between the concepts and details…I found that it was extremely helpful to go back and take the course again from a different instructor or to lab assist for a different instructor. Hearing the information for a second (or third, or forth…) time is great because at this point you know the basics, and you can build on the layers of detail and understanding the second time around. I have heard the level I courses done by 5 different instructors and each time I learned something new.
    All of us instructors love it when students are engaged and asking questions so if you have questions on some of the details we would love to hear them. Stacy…


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