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?
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.
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.
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.
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.