Back in graduate school I earned a few bucks on the side as an interviewer for the local phone megalopoly. I and two fellow grad students would gang up on people interviewing for Account Executive positions and take them through a structured panel interview. We all had to take extensive notes so that we could rate the candidate’s answers against a set of criteria, a task that required us to remember a fair amount of detail.
The note-taking was usually done by hand, but one day one of our trio brought in a laptop and used it to take notes. She was a fast typist, so in effect she ended up transcribing the candidate’s responses, word-for-word. When it came time to make our ratings, she showed us all of her copy and smiled smugly over the mounds of detail that she would have to work with in creating her ultra-hardcore scientific badass ratings.
The funny thing is, though, that I and the other guy who had taken notes longhand finished our ratings in a fraction of the time it took her. We were able to recall all the same information, like how the guy had killed his boss’s horse (in response to “Tell me about a time when you were in a stressful situation at work”) or dealt with conflict by threatening to urinate on everyone in a meeting (in response to “Tell me about a time when you had to manage conflict with other team members”), and we were able to do it off the top of our heads or just by using our hastily scribbled notes (“conflict resolution –> pee-pee, totally insane”). Apparently the gal with the laptop had been so intent on getting down every word that she hadn’t listened to any of them.
This story came to mind when I read this story on CollissionDetection.net. The article is about the decline of proper handwriting and cursive writing in school curriculums, but it also references some research that shows that the more one has to concentrate on the mechanics of writing, the slower he or she goes and the greater the number of errors. Basically, doing the unfamiliar task eats up brain power. I could see extending this reasoning to dictation and including recall as an outcome.
Some folks are bemoaning the loss of cursive handwriting and pointing to this as a reason to make it a bigger part of the public education curriculum. When I write something by hand I usually print in all caps, and I can do it pretty quickly. In fact, I haven’t written in cursive in YEARS. I tried to do it just now, and it was a mess. It looks like a retarded monkey had a seizure while holding a pen in its mouth. Still, I don’t have any trouble doing printing quickly, and my job still sometimes requires quickly taking copious amounts of notes.
Obviously handwriting should be taught, but I think we should supplement it with note-taking skills that break out of linear prose, like mind mapping, bulleting, shorthand, or even techniques used by professional stenographers. This strikes me as much more useful if the goal is to write quickly, as it almost always is when writing long hand these days. Anything where presentation matters is going to be typed.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before teachers turn to their students and tell them to text-message their papers to the front of the class’s wireless server.