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Note-Taking in a Digital Age

Note-Taking in a Digital Age

2 November, 2016

Note-taking has progressed way beyond pencil and paper – but it’s still an effective study method whether you are learning online or on campus.

How do you take notes during your classes? An image posted by Edudemic recently illustrated  a classroom of students all snapping pictures of a projected computer screen with their smartphones.


But the use of this method in an academic setting may not be as straightforward. Edudemic asked, “Would you encourage or discourage this type of behavior?” The image and this question sparked a quick Twitter discussion about when/how this kind of thing might be useful, or possibly more of a nuisance, with students in a class environment.

The possibilities of flipped classroom  and the benefits of a blended strategy in which these materials would be provided online for students to access and review before meeting to discuss was mentioned. It could take away from the classroom experience to stop the activity, discussion, or presentation to allow everyone to take a picture.

But what about materials made during a class session? Whether it’s building a concept map, wiki, or other collaborative effort, it may be useful for participants to capture the work they are doing at that moment in time.

Context is important to remember with this kind of note-taking. You don’t need a picture of every slide or screen your instructor presents, and you may be able to access and retrieve the information after the session.


Taking and collecting images may not be as effective in helping you remember  the information as other strategies that need more focused attention on the content you are trying to capture. And an online classroom provides additional challenges to consider.

Taking a picture, taking any notes at all, won’t be enough though. You’ll still have to study the materials. Experiment a little to discover the most effective ways for you to take notes, so that you’ll actually refer to them later on as you get ready for course assignments, discussions, and exams.

Here are a few options to explore:

Screenshots: This is another way to take a picture of what’s happening on screen, which may be particularly useful in a live session. ScreenHunter, Greenshot, and Awesome Screenshot are just a few of the free applications available. Ask your instructor, before the session starts, if taking pictures of the presentation is acceptable, just as would be appropriate in a face-to-face classroom setting. There may also be copyright or intellectual property issues that you aren’t aware of.

Cloud-based options: With tools like Evernote, Dropbox, and Zotero you can make an account in which you can store text, images, etc. from virtually anywhere. Additional features let you to search your notes by keyword and share them with classmates or group members.

Digital devices: Livescribe is a brand of digital pen you can use to physically write out your notes, and even record your lecturer, while also capturing a digital record that can be used with applications such as Evernote.

New Zealand’s Massey University provides a useful list of questions to consider before choosing digital note-taking software:

What kind of material will you use? Think about file types (e.g., .doc, .pdf, .jpg) as well as the ability to interpret and organize.

How many files will you use? Some systems have restrictions related to storage capacity, especially with free accounts.

Where will you study? Consider access to the Internet and working offline, and which devices you will use (i.e., laptop, smartphone).

Will you be collaborating? Several online students find themselves working on team projects and forming study groups. Being able to work together and share notes can be useful functions of the applications you decide to use.

Like many aspects of online learning, effective note taking takes practice, and you’ll need to find the combination of tools and methods that work best for you, and modify them from time-to-time as your needs change.