George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

Note Taking With Technology

Despite arguments to the contrary, computers can be effective for note taking—if we adequately support students in using them.
Students take notes using laptops or pen and paper as the teacher talks.
Students take notes using laptops or pen and paper as the teacher talks.
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In a 2014 article in Psychological Science called “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer claimed that while note taking in itself could be beneficial to student learning, using a laptop proved to be detrimental. A recent article from Scientific American, “Students Are Better Off Without a Laptop in the Classroom,” added fuel to this fire.

Before blaming a device—either the pen or the laptop—we need to identify what is best for individual students by considering what I call the four S’s of note taking. Does the system students are using:

  • 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?

Support

What if, because of individual learning styles, using pen and paper is 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. Using text-to-speech options. When typing content, students have the option of hearing it played back through text-to-speech. Imagine the potential for an English language learner or struggling reader to be able to listen to his or her own notes. On either iPad or Mac, the Speak Selection option reads back any text typed into any app. The Read&Write Chrome app provides this feature, and Microsoft’s Learning Tools include text-to-speech in both Word and OneNote.

2. Recording media directly in notes. Others may benefit from recording audio directly into a note. Google Keep, OneNote, and Notability include the capability to record audio directly into a note, and the latter two also support audio syncing—the ability to sync anything typed or written with the audio 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.

Though rarely considered a note taking tool, Book Creator can be used as a multimedia notebook. Students can not only record audio narration onto the pages of their books, but also include video. Imagine capturing video observations of a science lab or recording a classmate solving a math problem on a whiteboard.

3. Establishing visual hierarchy. Most note taking and word processing tools quickly create bulleted or numbered lists. Several of my former students with visual-spatial challenges found that aligning text and creating visual order helped them better synthesize the information. And note taking apps like OneNote and Notability allow students to organize their notes using a familiar hierarchy. They can replicate digital structures they might use in the physical world, like binders, notebooks, and pages.

Digital notes offer multiple dimensions—text, images, drawing, handwriting, audio, and even video—that paper notes do not. Students need the opportunity to identify strategies that best support their learning.

Save

Whether students take notes using a digital platform or capture pictures of analog notes in an app, technology allows them to save their work indefinitely. Google Keep automatically saves in Google Drive and OneNote in OneDrive. Notability can sync via iCloud or automatically back up to any number of cloud-based options, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive. Once students can access their learning from anywhere and any device, their work is truly saved.

Search

The fact that students can save notes doesn’t mean they can find what they wrote or typed. Beyond file names and organizational structures, students can also search digital notes to locate desired information. Consider the search possibilities afforded by Google Keep, OneNote, or Notability: Students can look for specific words or phrases in typed text as well handwritten notes.

The potential also exists to tag content—to apply keywords to notes describing the overarching purpose, important details, or even a rating of understanding. Students can take pictures of handwritten notes and tag them by topic, concept, or level of comprehension. So students can add another layer of organization, apply an additional layer of understanding, and reflect on their work.

Share

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. Going beyond simply emailing a document or copying a piece of paper, digital notes can become a collaborative experience—especially when students use tools such as Google Keep and OneNote that allow multiple people to write on the same note at the same time.

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 using the format that best supported their learning.

Today’s students require strategies that support their acquisition of knowledge, allow them to save their notes across devices, permit them to search through vast quantities of information, and share their learning with the rest of their community. By teaching these four S’s, we’re providing them with the skills they’ll need to succeed in a world that requires not only constant access to information but also the ability to synthesize it.

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BriannaMichelle's picture

i definitely agree with your thinking. Note taking anyway we choose to use is great, but if the teacher doesn't take time to review them, then how do the kids know that they got all the correct information. So yes i do believe teachers taking time to review them is a great idea.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Brianna.

Thank you for your reply. I think that you make an extremely important point in discussing what works for you. We have to help our students find what works best for them as well (that would be the "Support"). Personally, I do better handwriting as well. However, my support also requires that I handwrite digitally on a tablet so that it is more mistake tolerant. Just a twist on things. Similarly, some students may work best on paper alone as it removes the distraction of the screen. However, this is where Save and Share come in. How can we teach our students to create digital archives of their handwritten notes? Or, how can they take photos of their notes and then type/record audio summaries?

As students progress through school, I think that we need to help them develop strategies that support their learning. I elaborate a bit more on this concept in this post - https://www.edutopia.org/blog/take-note-curate-learning-digitally-beth-h... - as well as a more recent one on MindShift - https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/08/17/digital-note-taking-strategies...

Thanks again for the comment,
Beth

Heathington10's picture

Hey Beth,
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on note taking with technology. I like that you decide which avenue of note taking works for a student based on the criteria of: support, save, search and share. My favorite point that you touched on that made me see the benefit in note taking with technology is that students can take notes and then save them, but it goes beyond that. If student A likes the notes that a student B took , or they missed out on a note then they can share them and then add their own notes to them. I think that this will benefit students with group projects and peer teaching.
The main thing to focus on is exactly what you said in the beginning is that we need to figure out what type of note taking works for each student individually, and then support those separate styles.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Thank you for the reply!

Several years ago, Rhonda Mitchell - lower school principal at Trinity School in Atlanta - introduced me to the idea of asking students three essential questions at the close of each learning experience: (1) what did you learn? (2) how did you learn it? (3) why do you think that you learned the way that you did?

These questions help students of all ages to engage in metacognition to reflect on their needs as learners. I hope they help you as well.
Beth

Tracy H.'s picture

This article leaves me with many things to think about when incorporating note taking with technology. I enjoyed watching Mark Engstrom use the support, save, search and share model. I have a student whose accommodations include: access to a keyboard/spell check program and access to a speech to text program, which was what drew me to this article. We are in the support phase, teaching him how to use these applications because his disability poses unique challenges. I am excited to see his progress and look forward to when he can fully use these in the classroom as a tool for his success.

Aubry Karis's picture

Hi Beth,
I found this article extremely helpful. I used to think that taking notes on paper and writing them out was the best was to retain information.your article changed my mind! It showed me that taking notes with technology helps visual learners. It was cool to see the students collaborate and add images to their notes. This helps them retain the information. I feel like taking notes with technology help students be able to access and share info. Your article also helped me realize that taking using technology to take notes help students keep up with the information with audio programs. I will definitely use these tips in my future classroom! You mentioned how this could be useful for solving math problems and showed how it is used in a geography classroom. Do you have any tips for using this in an English classroom?

Thanks,
Aubry

aer13l's picture

Hello!
I enjoyed your article and thought it was very helpful to educators around the globe. Your view of technology and collaboration of being able to take notes through different platforms and utilizing different technology materials is brilliant. I loved this because it is universally designed for all students as I am a special educator and often we have to go way outside the box in order to have others understand and be able to do this. This is definitely something I am going to share with my general educator colleges for them to have a better understanding of all students as we have went to a 1-to-1 computer initiative at our school this year.
Thanks!

psamora's picture

Hi, Beth. I found this article enlightening. I have decided to go back to school to become a teacher after 17 years as a paralegal and court reporter. I have had to learn to balance my ability to type everything that I hear and important information given to me. My first couple semester my note-taking was a mess. I would have to search through an hour and 20 minutes of stories and antecdotes to find the information that I needed. I tried writing my notes, but was missing key details. I finally learned to listen and then take short notes on only details that I felt were important or that the professor noted as being essential. I do agree that there is a place for technology in school for notes, but it is crucial that we find a balance.

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi Aubry.

If you watch Marc's video in the post, I think that his use of the "learning farm" model would be really valuable in an English classroom. You can learn more about it from this article - http://novemberlearning.com/educational-resources-for-educators/teaching... Imagine if students could focus on different components of the study: vocabulary, key quotes, themes, historical context, etc., and all contribute to shared knowledge.

Another strategy that I learned from a great middle school English teacher is using color-coding with taking notes in the margins of the book (whether in print or digital). She created this highlighting guides for each book (e.g. blue = vocab, yellow = general fact, green = supporting details, pink = significant quote). Not only did it give her students a focus for their note taking, but it also allowed her to quickly walk around the room and scan to see if students were capturing key points.

I hope these help.
Beth

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Hi.

Thank you so much for sharing your story! In fact, your comments about typing are a primary driver of the studies that I cited in this article. When students can type really fast, they essentially transcribe without synthesizing. Your shift to taking notes by hand then illuminates the other part of the conversation: how to teach students strategies for effective note taking.

Whether you choose to type or to handwrite, I think the strategies are the more critical component. I actually had a chance to elaborate a bit in this other post - https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/08/17/digital-note-taking-strategies...

Thanks again,
Beth

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