How long do students keep notes from their college classes?

While discussing some of the things that he left behind in the transition between the analog and digital world, a writer includes his notes from Sociology 101:

I collected a lot of things. A large part of my identity revolved around the acquisition and accumulation of books. I also collected CDs, DVDs, comics and other cultural ephemera. I kept movie tickets, clippings of articles, flyers, interesting things I picked up. I couldn’t bear to throw these out because I thought that there might come a time when I might need something —like, say, my readings in Sociology 101 from the year 2000.

Who knew when I would have to define the sociological imagination? Or when I would need to define the political dynamics and do a comparative analysis of the authoritarian leadership styles of Lee Kuan Yew and Saddam Hussein based on my studies of Politics and Change in the Third World in 2001? Oh and there were empty liquor bottles signed by friends from the early Noughties wishing me a happy nineteenth or twentieth birthday, and lord knows a situation might arise when I might need those too.

If I was the professor of this Soc 101 class, what should be my response on hearing this? Happiness in that a former student might have turned to these notes? Depression because the student had years to look at these and never did again? Or indifference since this student seemed to collect a lot of things, not just sociology notes?

More broadly, I would be curious to know how often college students return to their books and notes from school. Does anyone have any systematic data on the subject? I suspect the data would look like a Poisson curve: most students have never returned to these sources. But couldn’t this be a measure of the “effectiveness” or “success” of a particular class, an outcome that colleges and professors might be interested in knowing about? Typically, we get information on evaluations forms from the closing moments of class, a time when students might be able to judge the immediate effect of a class but can shed little light on the longer-lasting impact of a particular course. Imagine if we found that a more popular sociological text like Gang Leader For a Day was popular in the short-term but a text like The Truly Disadvantaged stuck with students for years. Both outcomes could be desirable – a short-term book or lecture can draw people into the subject or enhance the classroom experience while a longer-term book or lecture can influence lives down the road – but are qualitatively different pieces of information.

Perhaps this could all be explained by personality types: there are people who keep things from the past and those who do not. But I suspect that professors would like to think that they have the potential in many lectures or in the sources they put in front of students to influence any student for years.

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