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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Andres C.'s picture

Hello!

Thanks for your post. It was really awesome to see how notes can be taken down in many various ways using technology. I never really thought about taking notes down using technology as I have always been accustomed to the pencil and paper method. However, after reading your article and watching the video, I think using pictures in my notes would definitely help me since visuals help me make connections. Thanks for the ideas!

Miranda Posten's picture

It is so interesting to see all the different ways technology can be used in the classroom to take down notes and study different topics. Do you think there are any down falls to having this much technology exposed while studying? Cheating? Distractions?

Laverna Benally's picture

I believe that crossing that threshold of tech versus old fashioned note-taking will provide you with a freedom you will crave. However, once you are there, teachers have to figure out the loops and be one step ahead of the students.

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

Hi Miranda.

Thank you for the thoughtful questions.

I think that there are ups and downs to everything, and it really has to do with how the teacher introduces different strategies for students. For example, a student could take ineffective notes on paper and also cheat with paper. They may be distracted by passing notes or doodling on paper (not the productive kind) just as easily as with technology.

The bigger question might be how can educators both help students to manage their devices and ask them to make deeper connections to content. A few years ago, I did an experiment with a group of middle school teachers. I asked them to bring their last assignment and then see if they could "Google" the answers. We then discussed how to ask questions that could not be "searched" and design assignments that required more analysis and synthesis.

This is definitely not an all-or-nothing conversation. For some students, paper might remain a great avenue to support their learning. However, given the vast amount of information now available, how might technology allow them to better save and search their paper notes such that it supports their learning?

Thanks again,
Beth

(1)
TXVTeducator's picture

I'm torn with using technology so heavily in my classroom because I have noticed a decline in writing skills since the district went 1-1 with Chromebooks and iPads from Prek-12 in the past 2 years. I love using technology to assist students with note taking strategies when they have disabilities such as dyslexia, dysgraphia or delay of fine motor skills. Sometimes it helps them retain knowledge and sometimes it is just going through the motions like students that just copy exactly what is on the board instead of shorthand or taking what is critical. I encourage choice of output of knowledge and intake of knowledge, but many students are resistant to this style of learning and just want to be told what to write and create. How do you bridge this barrier to effective note taking skills? How do you find the balance between technology and page-based writing skills?

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

I agree, TXVTeducator, that there are benefits to both handwritten and digital note-taking, and both methods can be valuable for brainstorming, drafting, outlining, etc. Depending on the age of the students, I think we can give them opportunities to learn which method works best for them, and then let them choose. For younger students, I think it makes sense for us to choose the medium based on what makes sense for the task. My students do a lot of their work on Chromebooks, but I also have them use spiral notebooks. Sometimes it is especially helpful to have their hard copy notebook notes next to their laptop as they work. I think we are learning that best practice is not either/or. There are times when digital work makes more sense, and other times when paper/pencil work is ideal. It's up to us to really think about which is best for each task and student.

TXVTeducator's picture

I absolutely agree, Laura Bradley, with having the hard copy notes with them when students are working on the Chromebooks in my classroom. I use an interactive journal in my classroom no matter what subject or grade level because I feel there is a strong correlation to their understanding through the process of note taking. I provide choices for projects and assessments to be technology based, page-based or a mix of both depending on the students' interest and level of support they need. Do you think the decline in handwriting activities or page-based practice correlate to some states not adopting standards that address cursive or handwriting skills beyond kindergarten or 1st grade?

Anshul Jain's picture
Anshul Jain
Founder | Builder | Designer | Manager @reclipped— “Tired of living a ‘perfect’ life. Hungry for Adventure”

Note-taking is a highly cognitive process that involves quick comprehension and writing, aiding in the process of learning.
I am a huge proponent of note-taking and that is why built a complete annotations solution for learning from videos - that is where I find innovation has somehow been unimpressive. You can check it out at www.reclipped.com

A Ivie's picture

Hi all--
I am a newbie stemming from an assignment from a educational technology college course requiring us to join a community of our choice-- and this is mine.
Note-taking is an important element in so many facets of education. Just as technology offers so many choices in apps, hardware, programs, and software -- it still needs to be used in moderation rather than a magic bullet. I think the same cautions toward moderation also exist toward the topic of note-taking. There are some great apps for note-taking such as Notability, OneNote, Kurzweil, and many others as well- but again... used when needed, not abused out of educational laziness.

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