Recently, a number of articles have surfaced reporting the ineffectiveness of note taking with laptops, in keeping with the findings of Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer detailed in The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard. These authors assert that when students used laptops in lecture courses, they transcribed notes rather than synthesized information. As a result, those students then performed poorly on cognitively demanding tasks.
However, before making a blanket statement that one device may be better than another (e.g. pen vs. laptop) or calling into question what may be the best note-taking system, what if we approach the concept by identifying what is best for individual students? In other words, does the system . . .
- Adequately support the students' learning needs?
- Allow students to save their notes to multiple locations?
- Let students search for salient points?
- Permit students to share with peers and teachers?
What if, because of individual learning styles, pen and paper are a detriment to learning? By providing students with digital options, we can remove a number of barriers to learning and create a least restrictive environment.
1. Anything that's text can be heard.
By typing content, students have the option of hearing it played back through text-to-speech. Imagine the potential for an ELL/ESL student or struggling reader to be able to listen to his or her own notes!
2. Record audio directly into notes.
Others may benefit from recording audio directly into a note. Both Evernote and OneNote include an option to add audio files. Similarly, Notability and AudioNote support audio syncing. Not only do these apps record audio, but they also sync it to anything typed or written while recording. While a student might not replay an entire class, he or she might tap on a word and jump directly to that portion of the audio.
3. Establish visual hierarchy.
Most note taking and word processing tools quickly create bulleted or numbered lists. For several of my former students with visual-spatial challenges, aligning text and creating visual order helped them to better synthesize the information.
Digital notes offer multiple dimensions -- text, images, drawing, handwriting, and audio -- that paper notes do not. Students need the opportunity to identify strategies that best support their learning.
To quote Alice Keeler, digital tools save students from "the Paper Yeti who lives in backpacks and gobbles up notes." Whether students work in cloud-based platforms or take pictures of analog notes, technology lets them save their work indefinitely.
I once had a wonderful advisee. Every afternoon, we repeated this routine.
- Find his planner.
- Find his notebooks.
- Make sure that he could find his notes in said notebooks.
- Put the notebooks into his backpack.
When we finally got this child a laptop, everything changed. He typed all of his notes in Google Docs so that he could access them from any device and from anywhere. Suddenly, everything was truly saved.
Just because students can save notes, it does not suggest that they can actually find what they wrote or typed. Beyond file names and organizational structures, students can also search digital notes to locate the desired information.
While I was in grad school, the potential to use Finder on my Mac to locate key terms buried in lecture notes saved me hours. Now consider the search possibilities afforded by Drive, Evernote, or OneNote. Students can look for specific words or phrases in typed text as well handwritten notes -- and even photos. By using a tablet or smartphone camera, even paper-based notes can be saved and searched, added to typed lecture notes, and then organized into a digital notebook.
Beyond searching text, the potential also exists to tag content -- to apply keywords to notes that describe the overarching purpose, important details, or even a personal rating of understanding. Students could take pictures of handwritten notes and then tag them by topic, date, unit, or level of comprehension. By tagging notes, the potential exists for students to add another layer of organization, apply an additional layer of understanding, and reflect on what they wrote.
When choosing a note-taking strategy and platform, a key component should be whether or not a student's notes can be shared among peers as well as with teachers, tutors, or parents. Beyond simply emailing a document or copying a piece of paper, digital notes can become a collaborative experience.
Mark Engstrom, an eighth grade Geography teacher in São Paulo, Brazil, experimented with a different style of note taking to build content knowledge in his class. Rather than ask each student to document his or her own learning during a lecture, he created a scenario where they curated their collective knowledge. Students assumed different responsibilities and employed strategies with an eye toward contributing to the class experience.
The Pen Is Mightier Than the ????
While Mueller and Oppenheimer certainly raise critical points about the dangers of using technology to transcribe notes, that is not to say that we should punish the tool. As Matt Scully wrote to parents at his school:
Their results are not saying students should avoid technology. They seem to be clearly stating that note taking is an activity where the note taker needs to process information and reframe, reorganize, and work with the data to make note taking useful.
Today's students exist in a new (and abundant) economy of information where they require strategies that support their own acquisition of knowledge, allow them to save their notes across devices, permit them to search through the vast quantities of information, and share their learning with the rest of their community. By teaching these 4Ss, we are providing them with the skills that they will need to succeed in a world that requires constant access to information that can be applied to new problems and settings.