Monday, June 9, 2014

Do Laptops Have A Place In Note Taking?

Last week Scientific American came out with an article titled Learning Secret: Don't Take Notes with a Laptop; my interest was definitely peeked. If you have not yet read the article, I definitely would take the time to read it. Although the audience is college students and professors, I think it does have implications for those of us in K-12 that use technology in our classrooms.

Digital Note Template from my
Westward Expansion Unit
For the past six years I have had the privilege of being able to work in an environment where all my students have a school issued laptop.  I have allowed students a choice of taking their notes on their computer using a Digital Note Guide or on a paper one. The article made me question what I do in my classroom with my students in allowing them to take notes on their computer.  Usually the majority of my students decide to take their notes on their computer.

Here is how I frame the choice to students:

Digital Notes Advantages:
  1. Digital Notes being on your computer will always be with you. No forgetting them in your locker.
  2. Digital Notes incorporate color images, maps, links to additional resources that can help extend learning.
  3. Digital Notes makes it easier to use a "Color Code" system to highlight critical information.
Digital Notes Disadvantages:
  1. If you are not a very effective at typing; can provide challenges.
  2. Computers can be an easy distraction, so if you are easily distracted by your computer this might not be the best option for you.
  3. Your Computer crashes and doesn't save your notes, you might have to go to my Blackboard Site to re-type the notes after class.  
I also make sure that when my students take notes they put their notes into a full screen mode, which is easier when using the Apple Program Pages. I also typically teach from the back of the room and roam around so I can see student computer screens. This is definitely added by my wireless remote I use that gives me the flexibility to be away from my computer in the front of the room. I know that there are times that not all of my students are "On Task" but I don't believe it is any worse than with paper notes. Students who are repeatedly distracted with their computer I usually have them close their screens and give them a paper copy of the note guide to use for the rest of the unit.

With the Scientific American Article and the article from EducationNews "With Handwriting on decline, Will Student Learning Suffer?" has given me pause to think if I should continue with allowing students to take notes with their laptops. Do Laptops have a place in note taking?

I can not argue with the research or their findings. I have heard similar concerns  made previously at workshops and other conferences. I guess it goes with that old adage "If you want to remember something write it down." I have also had in-depth conversations with colleagues on this topic, many allowing students to take notes on their computer in very limited circumstances. I understand the reluctance for teachers to allow students to use their laptop in note taking. Many reasons are justifiable such as in math classroom or science classroom where paper and pencil still beats computer based note taking system. The Scientific American article definitely gives credence to not have students take notes on their computer.

Despite these concerns I am not ready to give up on computers as a note taking platform. But, I also know that if I want student's to learn that I can't assume they will master my content by just passively taking notes in my class...with or without a computer. Maybe that is a more important point that I didn't see mentioned in either articles. Learning is not a spectator sport but requires student interaction and reflection of the learning process. Do we as teachers effectively prepare students on the learning process and how technology can help or hinder it?

Personally, most notes I take anymore I do by using the service Everynote because no matter where I'm at I can access these notes with my iPhone, iPad, or laptop computer. Having access to my notes when I need them I think is an advantage of computerized note taking. I think the same is true for my students. Like it or not, for many of my students they are very engrossed into anything digital. They have their computers with them most of the time and having the notes in a place that is easy to access I feel is still advantageous over the traditional notebook approach to note taking. There is little chance of "forgetting their notes in their locker" because their laptop is their constant companion.

In Marzano Classroom Instruction that Works there are four take aways to note taking
  1. Verbatim note taking is least effective way to take notes.
  2. Notes should be considered a work in progress
  3. Notes should be used as study guide for test.
  4. The more notes are taken the better.

I think at the end of the day, if students are just taking notes verbatim to what is on my presentation than very learning is going on no matter how they take notes. The key is to have student's summarize what they learn and here is where I think laptops can help strengthen student learning. Modeling summarization of notes is something I try and do with my students.  From the reading of the article I think this is something I need to make sure I keep emphasizing and showing them ways to effectively take notes. 

Student reflective learning must be a part of the process, regardless of how students take notes. In my class I try and set up reflection routines throughout my lesson. I use Anticipatory Sets at the beginning of each class period to review critical information from the previous day's lesson to help "Pull Forward" that information to build on for that day's lesson. Students write their responses to my set questions on an online journal on my Blackboard site. Students share with a table partner their summaries as well as participate in a large class discussion.  By having students keep their journal online, they are able to go back and re-read their reflections. I can also access student reflections as well if I have concerns on where a student is currently standing in regards to their understanding of a particular topic. Student summarization  is a big part of how I structure my class. I try and have students constantly reflect on their learning, sharing with other students, and sharing with me what they are learning.

I do constant Formative Checks of understanding at the end of class by using tools such as Socrative. Here I can get immediate feedback from students on how they are doing, but I also think it provides students another opportunity to process and reflect on their own learning of the topic we are studying in class.

Using other tools such as Padlet students can share their own short reflections to me, but also to other students as well in a digital environment that they can check back with latter. I have also found success with websites like CoveritLive or Todaysmeet, and Google Docs to give my multiple ways to engage with my students that I couldn't get in a non-computer environment.

Cornell Notes Template
in Pages
I have used Cornell Note Taking Strategies as a model for students on note taking, even creating a Template in Apple's Pages Program that student's can download to use as their note guide. I don't have students do this every time we take notes, but when I feel it can be a beneficial strategy for students to use.

If you are not familiar with the Cornell Note Taking Strategy, below is a great instructional video.

Causes of the Industrial Revolution
Graphic Organizer
in Keynote

I have also used graphic organizers like this ones to help students summarize their understandings in both text and image form. These are in effect digital notes where students are manipulating information in a visual way.

The article titled Learning Secret: Don't Take Notes with a Laptop has definitely given me pause on students taking their notes on their laptops. Despite these concerns I still think that some of the benefits out way some of the potential costs. I am not ready to give up teaching students positive ways to take notes using technology. I also believe that there are times when paper and pencil notes might be more of an effective strategy to use. It just means that as a teacher I need to think through what approach is the best and also giving students the opportunity to also take ownership in their own learning.

As long as I continue to provide students multiple opportunities to process and reflect on their learning I think any negative aspects of the laptops will be outweighed by the positive interaction with them. As the article states "When it comes to taking notes, students need fewer gigs, more brain power." My own adage with technology integration has always been "It's not about the technology, it's about the student learning."  I think I might share this article with my students at the beginning of the year and have them think about the role of note taking in their own learning process.

Do you have students use laptops to take notes or do you prefer paper notes? I would love to hear about other teacher's strategies on effective note taking strategies. With or without technology.

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