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Technology in the Classroom: Digital Note-Taking

Jordan Catapano

No matter the content, it’s important for students to be able to capture good ideas and record them for their personal use. The significance of note taking has not dissipated with the rise of new technology in the classroom; rather, it has increased since learners are exposed to an ever-widening gamut of information that must be curated, organized, and synthesized. In “Classroom Instruction That Works,” researchers explain how note taking is emphasized as a skill that “Requires students to identify essential information … access, sort, and code information, which can help them memorize information and conceptualize new ideas.” But while new technology in the classroom doesn’t change the important role note taking plays for learners, it does offer a wide array of new strategies for how notes might be recorded, organized, and utilized.

Analog Note Taking

“Take out your notebooks” or “pull out a sheet of loose leaf” used to be the harbinger statements of note taking. Students would pry a spiral notebook or three-ring binder from a crevice in their bags or – more often – retrieve a crumbling folder crammed with too many papers from too many subjects.

Our notes used to be kept on lined paper or teacher-created work pages. Students would diligently record the information for the day, and then save their notes for when they were needed later. The most organized students had multiple folders, section dividers in the binders, and neatly labeled tabs.

To take effective notes, students must be trained on the basic skills. It was imperative for teachers to share various note-taking strategies, to equip students with samples, and to even provide pre-prepared note pages to help students organize their information. They were encouraged to learn shorthand or cursive. Students would learn to record both what they saw and what they heard in a manner that made sense to them. Students were even shown how to return to their notes as tools for study and growth.

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Many of these note-taking skills are still just as useful. So what’s changed?

New Technology in the Classroom, New Note-Taking Strategies

The fundamentals of note taking have not changed much. But new technology changes how notes are taken, shared, and further utilized. And it’s these extended opportunities that must be taken into account.

Of course, teachers can limit student note taking to mere substitution, asking students to treat digital notes exactly the same as they would analog notes. This in fact might be a good place to begin, especially for teachers who are unfamiliar with more advanced methods of tech integration. But starting points are not the same as ending points, and we all must consider the vast opportunities for information recording that our new technology offers.

First, let’s understand some of the advantages of digital note taking:

  • All notes are saved in one convenient spot.
  • Notes can be backed up to a cloud server, such as Google Drive or iCloud.
  • Notes stay together – dogs can’t eat individual files.
  • Multimedia forms of notes can be taken.
  • Students can more easily share and collaborate over their notes.
  • There is expanded opportunity for formatting, including changing fonts, colors, and shapes.
  • Notes can even include audio files.
  • Special note-taking apps exist to simplify and maximize these processes.

Here are three popular apps students might enjoy using to help them take advantage of digital note taking.

Notability. An easy go-to note taking app. It focuses on user friendliness, yet offers a host of opportunities for more sophisticated note taking such as picture incorporation, audio recording, file organizing, colorized themes, backup connections, and easy file sharing.

Evernote. The ultimate app for your serious note takers, promising it will help you “Remember everything.” Any notes you take are automatically synced to your other devices, and your handwritten notes are even searchable.

OneNote. This Microsoft app is great for tablets or for PCs. It allows users to type and record audio at same time. It also helps multiple people sync into the same notepad, provides multiple formats and tools for note taking, and offers universal access.

General Tips for Digital Note Takers

New tools, new rules. No matter whether tablet or laptop, no matter the app, certain principles of good note taking should be reinforced with students.

  • Good note taking means good listening. Good listening means that you’re not staring at your screen the whole time.
  • Digital note taking can still be interactive. Ask questions, ask speakers to repeat their information, or ask for access to presentation, links, and files.
  • Yes, digital note taking means we can take more notes faster, but this doesn’t automatically mean those notes are better. Good note takers will also organize, edit, and consolidate their information.
  • All notes should be backed up, just in case the device itself loses its memory. Also, if notes can be shared or synced, take advantage of that feature for easy switching between appropriate devices.
  • Find a tool and stick with it. Don’t feel like every app or every tool within an app has to be utilized. Find what works for you and leverage it.

Digital tools open up new realms of opportunity for note takers. While note taking itself is just as important as ever, effective teachers will encourage their students to take advantage of these tech tools. But just as students aren’t born knowing how to take effective notes, they also aren’t born knowing how to best make use of technology for their education. Take time to not just teach your content, but to teach students how to use technology to effective record the information they need.

What other advice do you have for digital note takers? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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