Monday, June 30, 2014

Taking Note of Note Taking Options

 Think about when and how you learned to take notes. Was it formal instruction? Were you in a class specifically addressing note-taking and/or study skills? Were you just told to take notes in class one day? How did you learn to take notes? 

One of the most common things I have students report difficulty doing is taking notes. Taking notes can be difficult because of the very subjective nature of note-taking. Usually, when I'm taking notes, I'm writing down or typing those thing I find important to know. I'll write things that help me activate prior knowledge of a subject, and I'll write what I need to about the new material that help me learn that new material. If I have a learning disability or processing disorder that prevents me from being able to distil useful information from a lecture while writing or typing notes, note taking can become harder. Factor in the lack of "formal training" in note taking most students have, and the difficulty level increases. 

Typically, students having trouble taking notes themselves will use a note-taker accommodation. Incase you don't know, a note taker is usually a student who takes notes for other students who need them. Depending on the campus resources, the note taker may be paid or otherwise compensated for taking notes. Although sometimes, the note taker is a volunteer. How the notes are disseminated to the students who need them can vary quit widely, so we won't look at that. We can't forget that note taking is a subjective activity, so it can be difficult for a note taker to get everything the student with the accommodation needs. Factor in a learning disability and it can be even more difficult to make those notes useful.

Options Abound!

Digital (audio) recorders. Audio recordings of lectures are an older tool in the note taking arsenal. Now with the proliferation of Smartphones and inexpensive digital recorders, it's easier for students to record class lectures and replay them whenever they want. I've heard lots of arguments against doing this from students and instructors. 

Instructors usually have the argument that if they allow students to freely record their lectures, no one will show up to class. Interestingly, I have heard the same excuse reason given as for why instructors don't want to give students copies of their digital presentations. I haven't seen any studies looking into the validity of this claim, but I would certainly love to see something comprehensive so we can put this thing to bed. 

There's an argument to be made for student responsibility. To illustrate this, I'll draw on the analogy of eating at a fine dining establishment. If I go to Chez Quis (thank you Mr. Bueller), order their most expensive meal, and then proceed to dump the meal in the trash without eating a bite, I'm not likely going to be asked to leave the restaurant. I will most definitely have to pay the bill regardless of whether or not I eat the food. I'm responsible for whether or not I eat the food I've purchased. If I throw it away and stay hungry, I have no one to blame but myself. The chef may be insulted by my disposal of his culinary masterpiece, but he'll typically return to the bottom line-- it's my loss. I've paid my money, and if I choose to pass on the meal, that's my responsibility. Similarly if I order the meal, but order it to go, it's my meal to eat whenever I want because I've purchased it. 

Schools are the restaurants, instructors are chefs, students are diners, and lectures are the food. Instructors get paid by institutions and students pay the tuition and fees which go to pay those instructors. I understand class enrollment is important, but enrollment isn't the same thing as bodies in seats. I don't remember professors taking daily attendance. I do remember being responsible for material on tests, and I do remember tuition bills coming in the mail. If students are paying for the content, who are you/we to require that they consume it according to our rules? Let the students record the lectures. Heck, be proactive and publish the lectures as a series of podcasts that the students can subscribe to.  You may be surprised by just how much better students do with the ability to have multiple exposures to the material. 

So let's look at some tools!

Livescribe Smartpens.
Livescribe has been making high-quality Smartpens for some time now. How do they work? Well, they use a special paper and a special pen. The pen has a microphone to record the audio it's near. So if I'm in a meeting or lecture, the pen will record what's said. Now remember that special paper I mentioned? Well, the pen has a camera close to the tip that records what you write on the special paper. So, when you are going back over your notes and you can't remember exactly why you wrote something down, just touch the pen tip to what was written, and the pen will play back the audio it recorded when you wrote what you touched with the pen. I know. Sounds a little complicated? Well, check out this video which explains how it works pretty well.

Now, the pen works great if you can take some notes and you need a little prompting to help them have more meaning for you. This isn't necessarily the tool you want to use if you need to re-listen to the whole lecture. This also might not be for you if you can't take paper notes. If that's you, you may be better off using a digital recorder and recording the lecture so you can listen to it later.


Some people prefer to type their notes to writing them. I'm one of those people. Some people have to type their notes because they're not able to write or because their writing isn't legible to them. If this is the case, tablets, laptop computers, and even smartphones become viable options for typing notes. Yes, I said smartphones. We'll come back to that later. 

With a computing device, I can type into any number of note taking applications. I'm not going to list them here because there are so many with so many different features. Also, what you use should be greatly influenced by your needs. You could use anything from Word to Pages, Evernote to Notability to OneNote. You could even just use the simple Notepad in Windows or Notes in Mac OSX. The only thing that matters is that the application meets your needs. 

Similarly, the hardware should meet your needs. If you can do what you need to do on a laptop and you have a laptop you can take and use, by all means do so. If you have a tablet and that works for you, enjoy. If you need external keyboards or other peripherals, definitely use those. As long as the system works for you, go with it.

I mentioned smartphones earlier. They can actually be as viable as note taking devices as tablets. More often than not, they can run the same programs tablets can run, so they can be used in much the same ways. I know the screens are smaller than tablet screens, but for some people, this is a good thing. I once worked with a woman who had great difficulty writing and typing. She was able to text with her thumbs fairly easily. So when we were looking at options for her to take meeting notes, her smartphone was a no-brainer. She used notes at first and then switched to Evernote so she could sync her notes in the cloud and have access to them anywhere. So don't count out those smartphones or iPod touches just because they have smaller screens.

As an aside, there was a recent study that looked at typing notes vs. writing them, and the results showed that written notes were better. However, there are some things that the study didn't take into consideration like typing as a means of writing for people with disabilities. The study does bring up some good points about "typers" doing more transcription instead of note taking (processing the material and writing clear and concise notes). If you're interested in the study, you can find it at

Sharing is caring!

Whether you are using audio recordings, typed digital notes, Livescribe pen notes, or even written paper notes, having the ability to share those notes with others can be a very powerful thing. That's where a tool like Evernote pulls ahead of the pack as a highly functional note taking tool. With Evernote, you can have a notebook for a class and have  multiple people sharing that notebook so they can a all access the notes at the same time. This is handy if you have multiple students needing note takers for the same class. Instead of having multiple note takers or students waiting for faded copies of the notes, the note taker can use Evernote to distribute the notes without having to really do any extra work. If we're looking at paper notes, the note taker will need to scan the notes to make them digital, but once that's done, they can be shared easily. If the note taker records audio notes, the audio file can be uploaded to Evernote where it can be shared to the notebook subscribers. 

Where this becomes truly powerful is when you have multiple note takers in the same class or meeting sharing their notes in a shared notebook. Then, everyone with access to the notebook has access to all of the shared resources. If I have three people typing notes, one person recording audio, and someone taking photos of the slides/ whiteboard and they are all sharing that information, they have access to their own notes and to the materials of their peers. If you missed something, odds are someone else picked it up. By using the shared notebook, I don't have to schedule meetings to exchange notes. I just access the notebook, and I get everything. 

Bringing It Together

Taking useful notes can often be the hardest thing to learn. Some students are fortunate enough to get formal training throughout their educational careers. Sadly, many others, aren't so fortunate. If you add in the effects of a learning disability, you can end up with students not able to access useful notes in a reasonable time if at all. By embracing the many technology options available to us, we can significantly decrease that difficulty. Students can have access to notes in a format that is most useful to them and place learning center stage instead of struggling with the tools of learning.