March 23rd, 2016

You’re Going to Want to Write This Down


writing on sticky note

On a more-or-less regular basis, I find myself looking for something that I’ve written about in the newsletter or blog, which I only vaguely remember. Inevitably, my search leads me to something else that I’ve completely forgotten … and it is such a good idea or such an interesting finding. How could I have forgotten it? I kick myself, and resolve to work harder to remember this good stuff.

Am I alone in this kind of mental ritual? Or do all of us regularly forget what we’ve heard, read, or otherwise learned, in this case, about teaching and learning? Do we forget because we try to keep everything in our heads? Do we forget because we think we’ll remember and, therefore, don’t write it down? Or is it because we don’t have the time, and don’t think that what we’ve learned is important enough to preserve?

Teaching Professor Blog For a while now, I’ve been trying to keep better track of good questions that I’m asked as well as questions that I ask of others. When I facilitate workshops, part of my prep now includes both writing and reviewing questions. I’ve determined that the questions that pop into my mind on the spot aren’t always that good. The questions I prepare are better, and some of the ones I’m asked merit more thinking and recycling.

Most of us teach a lot of classes and a lot of students. Our teaching days are full, and we only have a few scattered moments for gathering our thoughts and reflecting on what did or didn’t go well. We need quick and easy ways to keep track of things that happened in class … things we don’t want to forget. 3M Post-it® notes to the rescue!

A colleague once shared with me that after class ends, she attaches a small sticky note on the materials from that day, and then imagines she will have only 15 minutes for prep the next time she teaches that material. She writes her to-do list on the sticky note: find more examples of X, create a better question about Y, add another graphic to the summary PowerPoint, etc. I love this strategy! My sticky notes may include something interesting or unexpected that a student observed or asked, admonitions about explaining a concept more clearly, or perhaps a connection I didn’t make between a new concept and one from last week. That small sticky note focuses my prep time and reminds me of things I wouldn’t otherwise remember.

I know many of us don’t like to write. I’m married to someone like that, and he forgets a lot, too. Writing is a way of preserving our thoughts, and a way of giving something ephemeral substance. Isn’t it also a concrete way of valuing ideas, insights, and information? One of the elements of faculty workshops that I enjoy most is seeing teachers taking notes—most of them do. I regularly try to make the point that participants need to move beyond stenography. Don’t just record what I say. Write your thoughts about it. Will it work? Do you agree? What question(s) came to mind? Taking notes in this way personalizes the learning record and helps you make the material your own.

I also advocate for teachers to write regularly about happenings within a course. I’ve read a number of articles that recount how this writing style prompts new thinking and deeper understanding. You don’t have to write a lot—not even after every class—but you should write regularly across the term or semester. Keep in mind that this is writing for your eyes only—so free write, stream your consciousness, and don’t proofread, punctuate, edit, or worry about grammar. This is capture-the-experience writing.

It’s often said that good teaching is not a destination, but a journey. For some of us, it’s a very long trip. Keep track of what makes your teaching a fascinating journey: the content places you’ve visited and can now map in detail; the unforgettable students and classes you’ve encountered; the papers they’ve written that merit rereading; and that book, article, workshop, or conversation that changed the direction of your journey.

Why does all of this matter? Well, it means you’ll forget less. But more than that, I think it’s about valuing what we do, and seeing that what we take from our experiences, both individually and collectively. These records become our unique cache of instructional wisdom. We need to treasure it, not lose track of it, or in any other way take for granted what we’ve learned.