Pre-Post Post-its

Sometimes the best way to find out why students do what they do is to ask them.

During a recent lunchtime conversation with a colleague, I learned about the “one-word check-in” — asking students to each describe, with a single adjective, how they felt at that moment. I decided to incorporate this into a data collection exercise that I hoped would demonstrate one benefit of taking notes in class — a problem for which I still haven’t figured out a solution.

My hypothesis: students who took notes — a more cognitively-engaging activity than just listening — would be more likely to feel better by the end of class.

I collected data in my course on globalization, which meets twice a week in seventy-five minute sessions from 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. The class, when everyone attends, has only twenty-five students, so my results are not statistically significant.

As students were entering the classroom and settling into their chairs, I gave each person three Post-it notes, along with a playing card dealt from a stacked deck (more on this further down). I told everyone to marked their Post-it notes with the suit and number of the playing card each had received. This allowed me to sort the Post-its by individual student afterward. Students should also number each Post-its with a 1, 2, or 3, to simplify keeping them in the correct sequence after class. I didn’t think of this at the time, but luckily I kept each pile of Post-it notes separate after they were collected.

The data:

  • At the beginning of class, students wrote a one-word check-in on Post-it #1.
  • After the discussion of that day’s reading response, students wrote on Post-it #2 answers to “Have I written any notes during today’s class?” and “Why?”
  • Students then clustered into teams to discuss plans for an upcoming project assignment. Note that this introduces a methodological flaw in my research design, but it turned out to be irrelevant.
  • At the end of class, students wrote a one-word check-out on Post-it #3.

A different randomly-selected student collected each set of Post-it notes after students had finished writing on them, which he or she placed face down on a table. The goal here was to make it obvious that I was trying to preserve the anonymity of students’ responses. However, I had dealt cards from a stacked deck (low value cards on the bottom) so that I could identify which responses were from men and which were from women — because I expected that women would be more likely to take notes.

Now for the results. Out of 23 students who were in class that day . . .

  • Nearly 75 percent felt badly at both the beginning and end of class. The most common response at both check-in and check-out was “tired.” The second most frequent response was “hungry.”
  • Two students, or less than nine percent, indicated feeling better by the end of class — they went from “stressed” to “motivated” and “tired” to “okay.”
  • Responses from two students went from positive to negative.
  • Only two students described positive feelings at both the beginning and end of class.

In sum, more than four-fifths of students reported feeling badly at the end of class.

Twenty students, or almost 90 percent, reported not taking notes. Note-taking frequency did not appear to differ by gender. Students’ reasons for not taking notes can be summarized as follows:

  • I can’t engage in discussion and write notes at the same time; note-taking detracts from my participation in the discussion.
  • I already wrote about what we discussed in my reading response, there is no need to write down the same information again.
  • “The assignment we were discussing has already been submitted so even if I learn new information the notes won’t be relevant after this class.”

The three students who took notes said they did so because:

  • “Knowing both sides [of an argument] will help me in the future.”
  • “I can get confused by the [reading response] question and taking notes helps me to clarify.”
  • “It helps me to remember information when I write it down.”

I know from years of experience that student academic performance correlates closely with attending class, being attentive, and taking notes. But most students indicated that they feel miserable in class and don’t perceive the regular classroom discussions as important to their learning. If they’re thinking that way, why are they attending class at all? And what can they or I do to alter their thinking?