Does this Victorian attitude to teaching seem familiar?

Our classrooms look very different now, but there’s a core to education older than most institutions


‘Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.’ –

Hard Times, Charles Dickens

The above quote from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854), is delivered by Mr. Gradgrind, a parody of the Victorian English Schoolmaster.

To Mr Gradgrind, students are ‘vessels […] ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim’. 

The teacher bombards his listeners with information, learned under fear of punishment by his unfortunate students.

Here in the UK, ‘Gradgrind Philosophy’ is shorthand for inflexible traditional education. One where the rote learning of information supersedes everything else, and students will sink or swim depending on how much of these facts they can remember.

Mr Gradgrind eventually realizes [spoiler alert] his system of education is too mechanical, that human beings aren’t machines, and that education must respond to real human needs.

It was a lesson hard won, but has education followed through?


We’ve moved on… but not completely

Attitudes to education and learning have changed considerably since 1854. But still living on in our institutions and classrooms is an age-old idea about learning.

Ultimately, while lectures and exams continue to dominate higher education, knowledge transmission from professor to student is the norm

In other words, the lecture is the ringing echo of the Gradgrind philosophy in Higher Ed.

What we do with that dynamic, however, is what determines how successfully we respond to the real needs of the modern classroom.


The Gap in Self-Directed Learning

This is not to claim that institutions don’t recognize the limitations of simple knowledge transmission.

Self-regulated Learning’ is an objective that universities routinely encourage through policy and practice. It’s about creating lifelong learners, allowing students to take ownership of learning and avoid the ‘teacher-knows-best’ approach that characterized traditional education.

Yet despite the best efforts of institutions and educators, students still enter Higher Ed with underdeveloped study skills. In fact, up to 60% of freshmen students enrol without being prepared for the challenge to come.

And once they arrive at college, the transition to ‘self-directed learning’ is made more difficult by a lack of specific study skills instruction.

This gap is clearly seen in how students deal with a new responsibility – the need to take, organize and review classroom notes.


Notes are problematic

Note taking remains the primary means for students to make sense of what is happening in lectures and take that knowledge away with them for later review.

But there’s a problem with note taking.

Research has found that students typically record just one third of important lecture points. And there’s only a 5% chance that students will remember these key points they’ve missed in tests.

What they do tend to note are the baseline ‘facts’ (or ‘superordinate’ points), often missing important explanatory details or examples that help to put the information in context.

Clearly that’s a lot of insight left behind, even for the best note takers. But for students that struggle with this skill, there’s an additional problem.


Disabilities and Technology

I’ve previously written about how note taking can produce unique challenges for students with cognitive impairments. When we look at the activity itself, we can see why.

In a 2017 research paper about the cognitive demands of note taking, the authors attribute 5 separate processes that occur in a continual cycle while taking notes.

An image showing the 5 cognitive processes of note taking
  1. Comprehending the lecture material
  2. Identifying key points
  3. Linking the material to prior knowledge and prior notes
  4. Paraphrasing or summarizing
  5. Transforming to written form

Their study concludes that cognitive effort helps to encode learning, highlighting the importance of note taking in a lecture context.

But the strain it can place on working memory and attention can leave students with conditions like ADHD or autism behind.

Meanwhile, access to higher education for students with disabilities has increased, with these students now making up around 19% of the student body


A couple of important Facts

With this in mind, let’s honor Mr. Gradgrind with a few Facts of our own, taken from a study into lecture note taking:

  • […] students with learning disabilities recorded about half as many total notes, less than half as many important lecture points, and about half of the total words when compared with students with no learning disabilities
  • On a test of lecture comprehension in the same study, ‘students with learning disabilities scored 20% lower than did students with no learning disabilities (i.e., 47% vs. 67%)’

What does all this mean?


Key Takeaways:

  • Taking notes helps encode information
  • Students, on average, miss two thirds of important points
  • Students with disabilities record only half of these
  • … But learning environments in which note taking is paramount are still the norm
  • Therefore, students need to be given better note-taking support to maintain independence

In Summary

While institutions fail to help students properly make use of the information they’re exposed to, students lack the equipment for self-directed learning. 

Our learning environments, by design, compel students to tackle a cognitively complex task to emerge with the materials they need to face assessment. Note-taking, therefore, should be seen as a specialist academic skill that requires teaching.

Until we achieve this for students, they’ll continue to be ‘vessels’ unable to hold the ‘Facts’. 


Additional sources cited:

  • ‘An Integrative review of the cognitive costs and benefits of note-taking’, by Renee S. Jansen et al, Educational Research Review, 22 (2017) pp. 223-233
  • ‘Note This: How to Improve Student Note Taking’, by Kenneth Kiewra et al, IDEA Paper #73, (2018)

Any thoughts on what you just read?