Note taking with digital tools during lessons or lectures regularly comes under fire for being less effective than notes that are handwritten using good, old-fashioned pen and paper. Research on the benefits of digital note taking shows pretty convincingly that handwriting your notes on paper leads to better understanding and higher attainment in tests than typing them up using, say, a laptop.
Studies have shown that typing notes requires shallower levels of cognitive processing than handwriting, as subjects often tend to type verbatim what they hear without really engaging with its substance to the level that is required for greater understanding and better recollection.
In contrast, handwriting appears to be more cognitively demanding. According to these studies, subjects who use handwriting are generally forced to rephrase what hear into their own words, thus creating “more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session”. The evidence against typing your notes is pretty compelling.
And then there were tablets
Tablets introduce another level of complexity to this problem, since they can be used both to type and handwrite notes. So what are we to do? Are we to avoid using the tablets and stick to pen and paper? If we do use tablets for note taking, are we to force students to handwrite notes on their tablets using a stylus? And are we to ban students from typing up notes on their tablets? After all, that is what the research appears to suggests.
Perhaps there is another way. Let’s take a look first at what actually takes place in an iPad classroom. One of the photos in the gallery, below, shows a group of AS students in a Psychology lesson. As you can see, the iPads are out, but so are the textbooks, worksheets (yes, worksheets!), folders and a not insignificant amount of other assorted bits of paper and pens. What is going on?
The fact is that tablets are not replacing pen and paper but, rather, the iPads are being used alongside them to support teaching and learning. Students in this lesson are taking notes on paper, but they are also referring to materials on their iPads (in this case a version of the PowerPoint presentation being used by the teacher) and making further notes and comments in digital format as the teacher delivers her lesson.
Therefore any argument that pits tablets against pen and paper may simply be misunderstanding how tablets are actually being used in reality.
So could you, would you, should you?
Ok, but can the iPad actually help the note taker? Certainly. Some colleagues and students enjoy the paperlessness of handwriting their notes on their iPads. Apps such as Notability are excellent for both taking notes and annotating texts from other sources, whilst Paper is adored by those with a creative or artistic streak.
But note taking and annotating can take other forms as well. Apple-designed Notes, which is part of the iCloud suite of apps, is great for typing up quick notes, such as meeting minutes, lists, reminders and notes-to-self. Pages (free with new iPads) is great to make notes with embedded media, such as sound recordings or videos of practical demonstrations, which is very handy when you consider how many subjects rely on them.
Evernote is a wonderful app that allows you to either type notes or handwrite them using its companion app Penultimate. Evernote also allows you to snap anything using the iPad’s camera and save it as a note. At my school, this is frequently used to snap shots of the whiteboard with instructions or to scan and digitise paper based resources – a process made much easier now with Evernote’s companion app Scannable.
OneNote, Microsoft’s digital notebook, is a very attractive option for note taking, list making and generally capturing anything that you need to remember. Especially appealing to teachers and pupils whose schools systems are still primarily Microsoft based, but useful to anyone.
A number of other apps, such as Adobe Reader or Apple’s iBooks allow readers to highlight and annotate text, which is really useful if you quickly want to highlight a relevant passage and make a quick note on the margin as you write more in-depth notes on paper.
There is, of course, a myriad of other apps, all with a their unique slant on note taking. All of the apps mentioned here either create automatic back-ups, sync back to your desktop/laptop or both. This means that your notes are never lost and are always retrievable, even if your iPad goes walkies or you manage to smash it.
In short, note taking or annotating on the iPad does not necessarily substitute pen and paper , as it is often assumed. At the very least, using a tablet like this supplements traditional note taking, allowing students and teachers alike to annotate materials in a variety of formats. However, at its best it turbo-charges note taking and annotation with its ability to record facts in a variety of media, which are then backed-up and synced across multiple devices, ensuring that your notes are always with you. Always. Even if you lose them. Which you can’t.