What I Want You to Know About… Notetaking

Notability for iPad

(picture: Cult of Mac)

Today I’m hosting a roundtable discussion about notetaking with our faculty. I’ll be asking them to share three questions:

  1. What are your students doing with notes that works well?
  2. What are their challenges?
  3. What available technology support/tools are your students (or you) using?

The purpose of the discussion is largely for all of us, myself especially, to get a sense of what is happening in our classes and learn from each other’s strategies and struggles. Current practice aside, though, there are a couple of things that I think are important to keep in the forefront of our discussions about notetaking.

Notes are Relevant Because of Organization and Synthesis, not Copying

The power of notetaking is not in the practice of transcription– indeed, transcription is too slow since the presenter/speaker can talk faster than the audience can type or write. Research supports the idea that the power of notetaking is in the real-time synthesis and organization of data into students’ individual cognitive structures and frameworks.

From “Apps for Organization,” session notes by Linda Hecker, Lead Education Specialist at Landmark College Institute for Research & Training:

  • “Computer-aided transcription supports working memory, better notes, better recall (Bui, Myseron, & Hale, 2013)
  • Converting to a visual format improves comprehension and recall (Weishar & Boyle, 1999; Makany, Kemp & Dror, 2009)
  • Deeper processing supports better recall (Hyde & Jenkins, 1973; Cermak & Craik, 1979)”

From “The How and Why of Note Taking (University of Houston):”

“As some researchers have found, ‘Individuals retain materials that they have generated better than materials that have been generated by others and given to them.’ Students who perform the best on targeted material tend to be those who created their own study outlines, study questions, and study questions with answers.”

Where in the past technology solutions limited us to fairly straight-forward typed notes, we now have the ability to mix input methods and media to create notes which at the least completely replicate standard paper-based notetaking, and at best add in additional options for capture and organization that save time both in-the-moment and in reviewing notes after the fact.

There are Many Ways to “Generate Notes”

The pure data of “notes” can come from many forms besides writing (and now typing) text.

  • Touchscreens on tablets and laptops allow students to draw as they write. This is useful in math and science when typing alone is unlikely to capture all of the important information, but also in allowing students to organize and annotate the notes in ways that make sense to them.
  • Anything that’s visible (being displayed or shown) can be captured by camera an imported into your note app, rather than requiring someone to transcribe it.
  • Handouts can be scanned in by camera as well.
  • Audio can be recorded and dictated by iOS or apps such as Dragon Dictation.
  • Pre-generated outlines, notetaking guides and written materials can be easily distributed electronically to provide a canvas upon which notes can be written.
  • Collaborative notes can be generated using backchannel or collaborative web applications. These notes can then create a two-step process wherein “raw material” is generated as a class, and students pull material from the collaborative material to create their individual notes.

Digital Notebooks Allow Faster Searching and Recall, Backup, and More Nuanced Contextual Organization

Even the most basic notetaking applications allow for folder-based organization. Nested folders allow notes, activities and supplemental activities to be collected in one location (e.g. “6th Grade->Geography->Oceans” would contain all notes, assignments, scanned handouts and supplemental materials). This allows for easier access during study or subsequent use. Furthermore, using backup systems either integrated with the app or built in to the OS allow for automatic backup of notes in the event of loss or corruption.

More sophisticated organization systems like Evernote or OneNote can be comprehensive “electronic notebook” solutions which allow notes to be quickly searched for content (e.g. to pull all materials referencing “Van Gogh” from different folders of Techniques, Work Samples, Art History). The use of tagging adds a layer of context to all notes — cross-referencing notes with eras, movements or regions throughout Social Studies and Literature courses places discrete content in an implicit context (and allows for explicit connections).

What Else?

In order to see value in using, demonstrating or teaching a digital notetaking solution, these three understandings seem crucial to me. While I have traditionally used paper-based notes, largely because of the limitations of typing-only input, the advantages of multi-modal notes and context-rich organization have seemed so powerful that a transition to digital notes has appeared to be inevitable. As touchscreen interfaces are getting more mature, I believe the ratio of technical advantage-to-limitation is tilting rapidly in favor of transformative notetaking.

What do you want people to know about notetaking? Why should it be digital, or why should it not? What should we keep in mind as we think about workflows, tools and strategies? Please post your thoughts below!

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