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Tools of the Trade: Notetaking

By Rita Sorrentino

Note taking is an important skill for teachers, students and all lifelong learners. From making lists and doodling to organizing and processing information, note taking helps to focus our attention and to increase our capacity for understanding and remembering. It’s a good idea to try out different styles and strategies of note taking to build up a repertoire and figure out what works best. Of course, taking or making notes is only part of the process; it’s what follows next that makes a difference. If we have difficulty finding where we stored our notes, if we never go back and reread them, then our notes are not producing valuable results.

In the classroom, we can help our students practice using their notes by incorporating them into activities. We can ask students to refer to their previously-taken notes for an entrance or exit ticket for class and encourage them to add to their notes as they participate in discussions and review for tests. When students engage in purposefully using their notes, they will identify their preferences, improve their skills over time, and prepare for note taking during lectures, independent reading, and research.

While handwritten notes have been around for a long time and remain preferential and beneficial to many, digital methods are growing in popularity. With cloud storage, digital notes are immediately available for retrieving, editing, and sharing. As mentioned above, it’s what happens after notes are taken that determine their usefulness. The mobility of digital notes makes it easy and convenient to tag, search, and sort notes for review and reuse anytime, anywhere. Let’s take a look at a few.

evernoteEvernote is an excellent digital note-taking tool for entering text, photo, audio and other kinds of notes on a computer or mobile device. You can also draw or write within each note, annotate uploaded files, sync notes across devices making it easier to search, and create a space for collaboration by sharing notebooks. As summarized on their official website, Evernote is a “one workspace to write, collect, find and present.” Oh, and it’s free.

paperportPaperPort Notes is another free note-taking tool (iPad app) with some impressive features. With PaperPort Notes, you can enter text with a stylus, a keyboard, and even with dictation using Dragon voice recognition and Internet connection.  You can add and annotate images, highlight text, and make voice notes. The app has blank, white-lined, yellow-lined, and graph paper backgrounds, and saved notes can be opened in iBooks. Although PaperPort Notes is not a cloud-based app like Evernote, there are ways to share and archive notes through integration with services such as Google Docs and Dropbox. With this app, students can share work for peer review and teachers can give feedback to students through voice, text or annotation.  Paperport Notes can be used for a Writers’ Notebook, especially with students with accessibility needs. Pages can be set up in a folder for topics, tryouts, leads, images and web references to name a few.

googledocsGoogle Docs offers an excellent tool for note-taking, either individually or in collaboration with others. Note-taking documents can be stored in a folder, tagged, and easily shared and searched. The ‘can comment’ feature invites others to make comments on the notes  (without having editing rights). Perhaps, a first step in digital collaboration. Using the ‘research’ tool, students can highlight a word for clarification and a sidebar opens with results of a Google search of the term, including definitions, images, links and videos. If a student chooses to incorporate information from the search, a citation is added to the bottom of their document. As students review notes, this feature enhances understanding and sets the stage for later research.

In a recent study, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard, Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA, tested the effectiveness of traditional vs. digital styles of note taking. Surprisingly, hand written notes proved more beneficial. “Synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes.” In the study, the students using laptops tended to type more content but did not process it as well as those doing so in long hand.

Choosing the right tool for the right task seems best.  For note taking at school and in the workplace, a combination of both digital and traditional methods will prepare us for teaching and learning with 21st Century skills.


Rita Sorrentino profileRita Sorrentino is a recently retired teacher from Overbrook Elementary School in Philadelphia. Rita is finding new pathways for working with teachers and students to use digital tools for reading writing, speaking and listening. She presented ‘Beyond Superheroes: Using Comics Across the Curriculum” at the PETE&C Conference in Hershey in February. Rita joined the Pennsylvania Writing Project in 2004 and the Philadelphia Writing Project in 1994.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tim #

    I love the idea of using Google Docs to practice some kind of collaborative note-taking. I was also struck by the finding that physical note-taking has proved more beneficial to students, regardless of the amount of content produced by electronic note-taking. In terms of incorporating note-taking into an exit ticket, I think that could be an effective way to to establish the practice as a classroom expectation, too. Great article.


    December 11, 2016
  2. janiceewing #

    It’s so helpful that you suggested various ways to use notes in addition to ways to take notes. This is a post I’ll go back to and try out some of the specific tips.


    March 11, 2015

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