Teaching students to take notes can be difficult at the best of times. Let alone trying to teach your students to do virtual note-taking. Read on to find out 9 tips to help your students take effective virtual notes.
Do you hate it when you finally sit down with students to conference their work only to find a total mess?
The student’s introduction is written in this book and their conclusion is in the back of that book. Their works cited list in yet another book, and the body of their essay is on their iPad.
Me too! And this problem is almost insurmountable when doing distance or virtual learning because you can’t flick between the books/pages/iPad.
Read on to find out 9 tips to help your high school students take virtual notes.
1. Teach your students how to use both digital and paper notes
According to this article by Beth Holland, students used to learning in an analog environment were able to curate their notes in a binder. Students could use the binder to store their own handwritten notes, handouts, summaries, course outlines, and assessment tasks.
But now we live in a digital age, many students have not only papers and worksheets, but also links to websites, videos, Google Docs, or Slides. With no system to organize information, students’ notes are ineffective.
By teaching students a system to organize their notes, you teach them how to access the information they need in a logical way. Students need to be able to use both written and digital notes because of the benefits of both.
2. Show students the benefits of using digital notes
Paper and digital notes both have their strengths and weaknesses. However, they do complement each other. And chances are your students will have a mixture of both paper and digital notes.
In this article, Holland suggests that educators often look at digital note-taking as a substitution for handwritten notes. But, she suggests that digital notes have advantages over handwritten notes:
- digital notes have features that support diverse learners including text-to-speech transcription, non-text-based media such as videos and images can be added directly into notes, and visual hierarchy is easy to establish with bullets
- students can save a larger range of ideas in one place in a digital format: website links, videos, images, drawings, handwriting, and audio files
- pupils can save digital notes for long-term storage
- students can search digital notes with tags or keywords, making it much easier for students to locate important terms, definitions, ideas, quotes, and notes
- pupils can easily collaborate with other students, teachers, tutors, and parents
However, in order for digital notes and handwritten notes to work in tandem, teachers need to show students a system to organize their notes.
3. Show students a system to organize both their digital and paper notes
Research shows that many students don’t learn organizational skills from their parents. Further, many teachers don’t teach organizational skills as they assume parents do. However, organizational skills improve academic results.
So taking the time to teach students organizational skills, especially organizing their distance-learning notes, whether they are digital, paper, or both, can have a huge payoff.
This article by Chad Hall suggests a system that advocates using both paper and online notes. And, on top of the advantages listed above, Hall argues that the benefits of digital notes are massive:
- digital storage means notes and data can be saved and backed up
- cloud storage means notes and data are available on any device anywhere with an internet connection
- digital storage means notes can be easily reorganized
- students can place reminders on their notes.
However, Hall suggests that pen and paper is great for other reasons:
- Pen and paper is fast and easy to use
- Formatting of notes is more flexible when using pen and paper
- Note takers can avoid distractions more easily
- Physically writing notes helps people commit information to their memories
- It reduces screen time
In order to use both virtual notes and paper notes, students need a system.
Students need a well-organized system to take effective digital notes. But they also need to take the time or organize those notes to gain the benefits of online notes. Chad Hall recommends people use the following tools/materials in a note-taking system:
- One main notebook
- One travel notebook
- Post-it notes
- Pens and pencils
- A task-management app
- A note-taking app
- An online calendar
Hall also advocates using the above tools systematically. The main notebook lives in the main workspace and is a repository for everything: notes, sketches, gluing-in paper, writing down tasks or events, writing reflections, and collecting quotes and inspiration.
The travel notebook is a small book that goes in a bag or pocket. Your students add the notes from their travel notebook to the main notebook once they return to their main workspace.
The third tool students use is a three-task post-it note placed somewhere they will see it: in their main notebook, on their phone, on their laptop. The important thing is that the small size of the post-it forces students to prioritize tasks and post-its notes are bright and hard to ignore.
At the end of each day, students process and review their notes. They might do any or all of the following:
- add events or deadlines to a calendar
- check their post-it note for completed tasks and mark them as complete on a task management app
- add new tasks to the task management app
- write their post-it note tasks for the next day
Ok, but how are students taking digital notes if they’re using paper notebooks?
Here’s the kicker, at the end of the day, students all of the notes into a note-taking app for long-term digital storage (and the amazing benefits mentioned above).
Finally, in the same note-taking app, they write the day’s main events in a journal that is organized by month. The years are written within each month (see pic below).
This allows students to search for past events such as specific lessons, results from any past assessments, important conversations, or topics they didn’t fully understand from previous years etc.
While this system may seem like it doubles up on work, it has advantages in that uses the advantages of both pen/paper and digital notes.
Further, the nightly review before bed helps commit the information to long-term storage while students sleep.
4. Ask students to “tag” their notes using keywords at the end of a lesson
In her article, Beth Holland explained that tagging notes allowed students to identify the most important information within notes.
Further, when students were asked to justify these tags, they gained a deeper understanding of the content, had more complex conversations about the content, and identified connections across subjects.
Holland found that when she tagged her own notes for an annotated bibliography, she was able to use the “explore” function on Google Sheets to identify common trends. She used the trends to:
- re-organize her notes by theme
- find commonalities among themes
- identify gaps in research
- ask deeper questions about her research
So, using tags may help students engage in that deeper-level thinking that teachers are aiming to get students to do.
5. Show students effective note-take strategies.
Many students are not explicitly shown how to take notes (although this is changing). However, many students who learn how to take notes may only learn one or two styles.
But finding a system that works for individual students takes time and exposure to different styles. You may like to show your students the CUE5+ system, Cornell notes, mind mapping, outline notes, or visual note-taking. (See the links at the end of the article if you are interested in any of these note-taking styles).
Each of these styles has different strengths and weaknesses, but knowing a variety of styles to take notes helps students employ different skills. It also engages students in metacognitive processes such as identifying which note-taking style suits which task.
A quick way to show a variety of note-taking styles is to use the CrashCourse Study Skills videos as homework or as a flipped classroom activity. Click here for the preview video about the course and here for the note-taking episode.
And if you want an easy way for your students to take notes about the videos, check out our worksheets.
Bonus: If your students are using Squidnotes or another app that allows PDF markup, they can use this worksheet for virtual note-taking.
6. Show students different note-taking apps that they can use online or for virtual learning
This list is not exhaustive, but different apps have different strengths and weaknesses for distance learning.
Help your students explore the following apps by assigning tasks within them. Even if it’s just a quick homework exercise that familiarizes students with the navigation of the app.
Simplenote is a great app to show to students as it’s free. Other advantages include:
- automatic syncing across all devices
- tags enable easy searching
- students can share or publish notes
- pupils and teachers can find previous iterations of notes because changes are automatically backed up
Another great virtual learning notetaking app is Squidnotes. Squidnotes is great for more visual notes such as mind mapping or doodle notes because it can be used with a stylus/pen tool. Other advantages of Squidnotes include:
- students can choose different ‘paper’ types such as grid, lines, Cornell notes, music staves etc
- pupils can use one app across many subjects
- the app mimics writing with pen and paper but is stored digitally
- students can import images or pdfs and write over the top of them (an easy way to use those worksheets you already have)
- pupils can share notes as a pdf, png, or jpeg file
- students can turn notes into a virtual whiteboard/slideshow presentation
Another great virtual notetaking app is Evernote. Like Simplenote, the personal/basic plan of Evernote is free. It also has the capability to search with tags. Other features include:
- students can save images, pdfs, webpages, web snips, audio, and scanned images or documents
- notes are searchable, including handwritten notes
- students can format notes in many different ways
- the app integrates with many different apps including Google and Microsoft apps
- students can create ‘rich notes’ by writing text, recording audio, or taking pictures and video
- students can sync notes across 2 devices on the free plan
7. Give student a ‘task’ as a way to take notes
Visual thinking routines (by Harvard) are a great way to assign students tasks that forces them to take notes online. One example of a way to do this would be a pre-reading activity.
You could assign the visual thinking routine of 3-2-1 Bridge and ask the students to write three thoughts/ideas, 2 questions, and 1 metaphor or simile before reading a text, and then again after reading a text.
This would force students to take notes (3 thoughts), reflect on their knowledge or learning (2 questions), and make connections (1 metaphor or simile). These are all great meta-cognitive skills.
Bonus: the Harvard website lists all of these visual thinking routines and strategies in Spanish, so if you teach in a school with a large Spanish-speaking population, you can link to both the English and Spanish instructions.
8. Use book creator as a virtual notetaking book
Another strategy for remote learning notetaking is to ask students to keep a digital notebook in the book creator app.
The excellent thing about doing this is that the auto-draw feature of the app means that students no longer have an excuse to not create visual notes, doodle notes, or one-pagers.
The app has a wide range of features that make it an excellent online note-taking tool, such as:
- a variety of fonts for students to pick from
- students can add images from online or their camera
- students can add video or audio from online or their device’s recording features
- the pen tool means students can draw and doodle
- students who ‘aren’t artistic’ can use emojis, shapes, icons, and arrows to take notes
- the auto-draw feature means ‘non-artistic’ students can use the pen tool and still draw recognizable pictures
- books can be portrait, landscape, or square
- students can collaborate with teachers and other students while online
- templates mean that you can assign tasks such as magazine articles and newspaper articles, comic books/strips
- students can publish their books – this would be a great way to do a folio-type assessment of students’ achievement
This tool would be fantastic for online one-pager assignments or to make self-created revision sheets.
9. Consider assigning digital one-pagers for revision or assessment
If the whole point of taking notes is to encode information and then use that information later for revision, a great way for students to do the ‘encoding’ and ‘using later for revision’ is to create a revision one-pager.
Easy ways to do this include:
- Chapter or concept summary one-pagers
- Character summary one-pagers
- Choice board one-pagers (see here for Reading and Writing Haven’s ideas on doing digital one-pagers using a choice board)
- Thematic elements one-pagers
- Symbolism one-pagers
Not only does creating the one-pager force students to think in more depth about the topic, but they also become a great revision tool similar to doodle notes or mind maps.
Want more information?
You can check out our other blog posts about taking notes (although these are not necessarily aimed at distance learning note-taking):
- Easily teach your students to take effective Cornell Notes
- A tired teacher’s quick and easy guide to mind mapping
- Quickly teach your students to take effective outline notes
- A Tired Teacher’s Guide: What You Need To Know About Visual Note-taking
- 5 research-backed reasons you should be teaching mind mapping
- Why your students’ notes suck and how to improve them
Want to see more of our study skills products?
Check out our TPT store for more information about our Crash Course Study Skills worksheets.
Research and articles cited:
Gambill, Jill M.; Moss, Lauralee A.; Vescogni, Christie D. 2008. “The Impact of Study Skills and Organizational Methods on Student Achievement.” Action Research Project., Saint Xavier University. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501312.pdf
Hall, C. (c) 2016. “The Medium Method. ” Todoist Blog. Republished on Medium.com as “Want to be more productive? Don’t go paperless.” on February 10, 2016. https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/medium-method#using-desirable-difficulty-for-learning-and-creativity
Holland, B. 2014. “Notetaking with Technology.” Edutopia. Updated August 4, 2017. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/the-4ss-of-note-taking-beth-holland
Holland, B. 2016. “Tagging and Digital Note Taking Make Thinking Visible.” Education Week. January 8, 2016. https://www.edweek.org/education/opinion-tagging-and-digital-note-taking-make-thinking-visible/2016/01