Instructional Design

Underestimated and Over-imagined: Note Taking in the Online Classroom

By Tom Armbrecht, PhD

My colleague, Zachary Fruhling recently wrote about the importance of cultivating good learning skills in a blog entry, Education as Habit Formation. He argues that the success and longevity of much educational technology depends on its ability to encourage students to form habits that promote learning. He notes two shortcomings common to educational technology: 1) it requires little engagement from the user, particularly in the long term, and 2) there is little motivation to use it because of the way it is designed or integrated in the course. Zach’s analysis implies another issue that is often a problem with educational technology: it is “imposed” on the user by being presented as the mode in which a particular task must be accomplished, rather than presented to the user as a possible means for effective learning.

The fundamental challenge with all educational technology is to remember that it all too easily becomes the tail that wags the dog. Very often the first impulse when encountering a cool new tool is to figure out how to fit it into a course or how to design an exercise around it, rather than making sure it’s the most effective way to accomplish a learning objective. Although it’s easy to become enthralled by the latest thing, instructors and instructional designers alike must approach new technology with a skeptical eye and forever repeat the mantra: pedagogy first. There is no shame in admitting that, even in a course taught wholly online, sometimes a pencil and paper are the best tools for the job.

Taking notes is a good example of an essential educational activity that is often overlooked when focusing on larger learning outcomes. Too often, instructors and students alike consider it a quasi-private activity, the cultivation of which is both too general and too personal to merit being directly addressed in class. Note taking is further complicated by the ever-expanding plethora of electronic tools with which to do it. Most platforms come with note taking software preinstalled, and there are hundreds more applications available, many of which are free. This paradoxical lack of attention and surfeit of choice puts the learner in a difficult situation; in searching for the best application for note taking, many students fail to realize that they don’t actually know how to take notes. Even if they are in the habit of using a note taking program, they may not know how to take notes that will help them specifically in the discipline that they are studying. In the worst case, students may spend lots of time playing with various note-taking programs only to end up with information that is either poor quality, because the student has focused on learning the application, or that becomes all but useless when students decide that the program they’ve been experimenting with is not what they were looking for and abandon both it and the notes that they took with it.

Although this essay is about note taking, it does not endeavor to teach people how to take notes. It does, however, propose incorporating note-taking instruction into a online course, or at least addressing the subject directly with the class. There are many schools of note taking, a succinct and humorous summary of which can be found in this YouTube video by Thomas Frank. Even if teachers might decide not to discuss various methodologies for taking notes, surveying the class to find out how many write by hand and how many type, which materials they employ and how they use them, would be a rich discussion topic that would encourage students to share study habits and resources and to build community.

Instructors and designers interested in making note taking an object for reflection might be tempted to require everyone to use the same technology or even to assess class notes as a way of integrating them meaningfully into the classroom. Pedagogy-first thinking requires, however, that we examine the desired learning outcome of note taking before incorporating any technology or designing any activities.  Notes can help students achieve many objectives, among them:

  • Getting material “into their heads” by reformulating ideas in their own words. The repetition and “translation” inherent in making an idea your own is a basic mnemonic tool that is facilitated by the (physical) action of writing.
  • Amassing review materials for cumulative course activities, such as tests, papers, or projects
  • Creating a repository of reference materials for use in the long term context of a their professional careers
  • Sharing ideas and knowledge with classmates to further both comprehension and community

Although this list is hardly exhaustive, its variety already suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach, or even tool, for note taking is unlikely to help students realize multiple goals. Realizing that note taking does have multiple goals is, however, the first step in effectively integrating it into the learning process because it makes plain the fact that, as an essential skill, it should be addressed and taught directly as part of a course.

How do instructors teach effective note taking in an online class? To answer this question, it is important to consider the parameters and possibilities of the e-classroom.  Since taking notes is an activity performed in conjunction with another, such as reading or listening, both activities should be designed together, with one designed to promote the other. For example, although contemporary online teaching recognizes the limited usefulness of straight-up lecture, whether recorded or streaming, it is still not unusual to encounter one-sided presentation of material in the online classroom. There are many rich resources that merit inclusion in a course, even if they are only presentational, and the delivery of a lecture by an instructor is both an efficient and traditional (if potentially boring) method of communicating large amounts of information.  The ability to listen without being observed, however, does not promote paying attention, and the difficulty of asking or answering questions makes student disengagement even more probable. Asking students to take notes, therefore, can be an effective way to make the lecture more interesting, particularly if the lecture is designed with note taking in mind.

As already stated, the first thing to do when designing a learning activity–including a lecture–is to identify its objective. If we assume that the goal of a lecture is, at its simplest, the conveyance of information, then the learning objective is to get students to understand and retain it.  Pre-lecture activities that indicate what a student should be listening for are a good way to guide students’ note taking. Providing them with a very general outline can help them understand where they are in the development of your thought. Asking them questions that can only be answered by listening to the lecture is a good way to keep them paying attention. Giving them a post-lecture activity, of which they are aware from the very start, can keep them focused throughout the talk.

These same strategies can be used when reading. Teaching students how to approach a text, telling them what they should look for, and giving them a clear idea of what they must do with it promotes student engagement, since they’ve been given guidance and have a goal in mind. In some of my graduate classes, I assigned more than 1,000 pages of reading per semester. My primary goal for doing so was to make students aware of the seminal texts of the field and to make them familiar enough with these books and articles to use them to prepare for exams and their dissertations. I had little expectation that they retain the details of all but a few books, however, and so assigned note taking as one of the assessed activities. Twice each semester, each student in the class was responsible for preparing a detailed, but succinct précis of the assigned text. It could be one page recto-verso at most, but had to cover the book’s thesis, structure, major points, and propose a conclusion. The students also had to present the book to the other students by going over their notes, asking questions, and linking it to that day’s discussion. By the end of the semester, the entire class had a small notebook filled with summaries of the texts that they had read. Each was written in a slightly different style, although all adhered to basically the same parameters of length and content. This activity was useful not only because it served as a reference library to be used later in a student’s academic career, but because it also made students aware of how their peers processed and organized information through note taking and redaction.

By encouraging and guiding students to take notes, instructors can help them develop a skill essential to success in the online classroom. Note taking can be taught by integrating it into existing activities, for example: 1) making the subject the topic of a class-wide discussion; 2) assigning pre-listening and pre-reading activities to guide the students in the note-taking process; and 3) requiring students to prepare and share their notes for the benefit of their peers and for assessment. Although discussing the mechanics and strategies for note taking itself can be useful, focusing on the how can detract from the why (i.e., the learning objective). Even if not addressed as skill in and of itself, instructors should acknowledge the importance of note taking to succeeding in class, and should encourage students to engage with class material by summarizing and organizing it in their own way.

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