What’s the best way to take notes on your laptop or tablet?

What’s the most effective way to take notes if you’re typing? Joanna Penn/Flickr, CC BY-SA

How many windows and tabs are open on your computer as you read this article? How many different tasks are you trying to do on your computer right now? Electronic devices tempt us to try to multi-task, but according to research, only 5% of people can multi-task efficiently.

People have a maximum attention span of around ten minutes, thus the amount of attention we can devote to processing, encoding, storing and retrieving information is limited.

When students divide their attention by simultaneously trying to take notes as they listen to the teacher, check Facebook, answer texts and respond to email, their notes are less effective because they are distracted by non-academic activities.

Arguments against the use of laptops, tablets, smart phones and other devices in the classroom largely centre around problems with multi-tasking and distractions on the devices. It also becomes an equity issue if not all students can afford the latest devices.

But the fight over whether to use electronic devices for taking notes is a battle that may have already been lost, and it is not an “either/or” problem. Banning technology because teachers are not comfortable using it effectively is not a convincing argument.

Teachers have to develop new skills to use technology purposefully. Whether handwritten or electronic, it is best for teachers and students to choose the most appropriate form of note taking for each task. Here are six tips on how to use electronic devices more effectively for taking notes.

Tip 1: Our memory affects the way we take notes

Understanding attention span and working memory capacity is important to learn how to take electronic notes more effectively. Working memory can be defined as “the ability to temporarily store and manipulate limited amounts of information”.

Research on differences in people’s working memory capacity reveals there are significant differences from person to person.

As people become faster at typing than handwriting, they can transcribe a lot more content by typing notes than if they write by hand. If a learner has poor working memory, it is sometimes easier to copy first and process the notes later.

Learners don’t have to divide their attention as much between the various cognitive tasks involved in simultaneously listening, typing, synthesising and processing information, so they can write more notes. But this strategy works only if learners go back and reprocess the notes within a 24-hour, seven-day and 30-day period.

Even using electronic notes, a learner has to review and re-engage with their notes several times in active learning tasks, such as:

• “chunking” a lot of similar pieces of information into bigger categories that you can remember more easily

• transcribing key concepts in your own words

• adding essential questions to the notes to prompt recall of the key concepts

• writing a summary of the notes

• reflecting on the learning process itself – where were you challenged? How did you solve problems?

Tip 2: Laptops must be used in structured learning tasks

Learners need to be taught explicitly how to use technology tools in structured, active learning tasks. Structured tasks use technology built into the lesson. For example, have groups use laptops to look up a number of alternative research findings when a new concept - say, climate change - is introduced, then have the groups summarise and compare their findings to the class. Researchers have found:

The use of laptops in structured tasks results in significantly more time spent taking notes and related academic activities, and significantly less time sending personal emails, instant messages and playing games during class.

Teachers need to take into account students' attention spans and the perils of multi-tasking. This should result in less lecturing, more collaborative learning tasks, use of discussion groups, problem-based learning and case study discussions.

Research also shows that use of laptops is distracting for others around the laptop user as they tend to look at the screens and their learning suffers as a result. Designate specific areas of the room for laptop use so that non-users are not distracted.

Tip 3: Share the responsibility of using electronic devices

Teachers should collaborate with students to make decisions about the use of electronic devices in classes. Share knowledge of both the pitfalls and benefits of using handwritten or electronic notes. Teachers can make a contract with students about how technology will be used in their class, and revisit it throughout the term.

Apps and software tools for taking notes on laptops and personal devices are released frequently. Give learners the responsibility of researching different apps and sharing the pros and cons of each, gradually building a database of what is available, to be shared by everyone.

Tip 4: Start with easy tools

Using track changes in any word-processing program enables students to annotate and add self-quizzing questions to their notes. Word-processing documents can be very effective for the four stages of notes – note taking, note making, note interacting and note reflecting – as it encourages the sharing of notes between study groups.

Notes can easily be written, stored and shared on various programs and apps. Guided notes can be emailed or sent to students using a QR Code. Teachers should provide time for learners to pause and reflect on their notes throughout a lesson and in subsequent lessons.

Tip 5: Combine handwritten notes with electronic devices

For tasks like formulas and diagrams, handwritten notes can be integrated electronically using a stylus. Handwritten notes on the electronic device become searchable, too. There is also software for mindmapping and similar forms of non-linear note taking.

In the example below, a student used his iPad to take notes, then added a photo and essential questions. Later, he will review again and add a summary.

Example of handwritten notes on an electronic device using Notable - an app that enables stylus and keyboard entry. Donohue 2015, Author provided

The student uses a number of electronic notebooks that are stored in the cloud and can be accessed from anywhere in the world anytime. In this example, he linked an online video and lesson plan, which he copied, pasted and referenced into his notes. The different colours are his later annotations of the notes. He then saves to Dropbox or Google Drive and shares the notes with colleagues for their additional annotations using any application that allows annotation of PDFs, such as Notability, iAnnotate, PDF Pen, Evernote and Professional Adobe Acrobat.

In Figure 2, notes were typed electronically and reflective questions were added when he reviewed his notes within 24 hours. He uses Notability, which allows him to annotate a pdf and embed audio comments.

Sample of AVID’s Electronic Application of Cornell Notes using Word and Tracked Changes. Donohue, 2012, Author provided

In figure 3, the student inserted a “self quiz” box to slide over the key information. He then used his essential questions as prompts to review what he has learnt about the topic so far. At the touch of a key, he can remove the box and check his understanding.

Sample of AVID’s Application of Cornell Notes For Testing and Revising. Donohue, 2012, Author provided

Tip 6: Know your device

Physical differences in manipulating laptop, tablet and smart phone keyboards are likely to impact the efficiency of taking notes electronically, as are differences in storage and retrieval options, and the range of apps available on different devices.

Researchers found texting about unrelated material is distracting and negatively impacts note taking, test performance, learning and recalling information, but learners who texted about related course material scored higher on multiple choice tests.


AVID consultant and Adjunct Fellow at The Victoria Institute, Jim Donohue contributed to this article.