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Notes in the Digital Age: Pitfalls and Solutions

15 Apr 2015 by Scott Sterling

I attend quite a few conferences and seminars throughout the yea,r and the ritual at the beginning of a session is always the same — the people who were once happy to sit in the back and pretend to listen are now rushing to the front. Why? So they can take pictures of the PowerPoint slides with their phones rather than have to write actual notes.

For others trying to see the presentation in the middle or back of the room, these interlopers are annoying. We don’t like phones being held up 30 times during a talk. It’s distracting. But the front-jumpers are also just shortchanging themselves.

The benefits of writing notes

It’s well established by neurologists that the act of actually taking notes by hand helps the brain retain information. Hitting the shutter button just doesn’t have the same effect. The jury is still out on whether typing on a laptop or tablet yields the same results, but our ideas about what constitutes note taking are always evolving.

Do you know where the phrase “speaking off the cuff” comes from? In Victorian times, gentlemen would take notes on the starched cuffs of their shirts. We wouldn’t dream of that today (mainly because students rarely come to class with starched shirts).

But forcing students to use a paper and pencil when many of them have devices on their desk seems antiquated. Can we meld the two somehow? Experience the benefits of digital with the neurological benefits of manual?

Note-taking systems

The first step might be to have your students use an organized system of note-taking rather than blindly scribbling whatever sounds important.

The note-taking format established by Cornell University has gained in popularity over the last decade or so. It calls for students to use headings, summaries and bullets to organize their notes. There’s a lot more to it, so check out this video for the added detail. This approach seems to help with retention and it makes information easy to find for studying.

The other idea is to call for a visual form of notes, either by using graphic organizers or asking students to draw pictures rather than just write words. Think about the latest online post you read that featured an infographic; didn’t that seem like a more concise and memorable method to get your point across? The same principle applies here.

Digital solutions

Believe it or not, there are ways to digitalize these strategies as well. The ubiquitous note-taking app Evernote teamed up with notebook company Moleskine to produce a notebook that digitizes your notes and uploads them to the Evernote app. No more woeful cries of “I lost my notes” when you ask a student why they did particularly badly on a quiz.

There are also plenty of apps that allow students to use a stylus to “write” on their devices. The bottom line is that having students write rather than click might be the difference between information retention and academic struggle.

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