Posted at 07:30 am

Taking Notes in an Online Course

By Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Imagine reading most of your course content online using your desktop or laptop computer, or via a portable device (PDA or smartphone).  How do you take notes?  In some cases, it's fairly easy -- you can copy and paste into a Microsoft Word document and then annotate the text using "track changes" or highlighting.  In other cases, students print out the online readings and write directly onto the paper printouts.

These techniques work for some people, but are they the best approach?  What if the documents you're working on are in a format that you can't copy and paste into a Word document?  What if you do not have access to a printer?  If that's the case, your note-taking comes to a screeching halt.

Even if you do manage to annotate and print the material you see on your computer screen, there may be other approaches to note-taking that will help you succeed in your courses.

Although one might think that note-taking is only good for passing tests that require rote memorization, the real value of annotating and thinking about what you are reading comes in the fact that you are transferring knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory.  You are creating a method of achieving deeper learning.

As you contemplate what you are reading, and you organize the points, summarize and make connections, you are developing a method that works for you for understanding the core content and concepts.  As you pull the key terms out of the text, you are prioritizing knowledge, and you are synthesizing the ideas that you are exposed to.  While one might think that this is only good for performing in the exams, the reality is that you will be able to do a better job with discussion questions, and you'll gain more from interaction with students if you've found a way to organize, contextualize, and situatuate your knowledge.

Pre-Note-taking Activities

* Review the course and chapter overviews, objectives, and desired learning outcomes;

* Align your note-taking approach with the kind of assessments you'll be doing;

* If you are required to write essays or term papers, have possible topics in mind;

* If you are required to take multiple choice, true-false, or short-answer tests, find where there might be a glossary of key terms;

* If you must write short essays, make lists of possible topics, then make connections between the readings.

Techniques for Taking Notes

* Bullet points, lists, concept maps, clusters.  Open Notepad in a corner in your computer.  Create a system or structure for taking notes.  This could be a bullet point list of key terms, a concept map (you'll need a graphics program, which can be as simple as Paint), a cluster of related terms, or an outline.

* If you have articles to read, create annotated bibliographies.  Cornell University has an excellent description of what constitutes an annotated bibliography, and they have an excellent procedure to follow.  In essence, you would write down the citation for the book using the citation style you would most likely be using in a paper.  Then, after you have entered in the citation details, you write a succinct description of the article that summarizes its value to the topic you are studying.

* Discuss the reading with other students. Open a thread in the discussion board in the "Student Lounge" area and ask students to post what they thought of certain reading.  Engage in a discussion.

* Collaborative Learning: Discussion boards, blogs, myspace, instant messaging and chat.  If it is a course that requires a significant amount of contemplation and writing short papers in which you take a position, it is often useful to try out some of your ideas on your fellow students.  Invite them to post their ideas so you can respond.  This will force you to think from multiple perspectives and to deepen your arguments by providing excellent support for your position.

Collaborative Note-Taking

This is as new area which has not been explored in online learning, but would most definitely be worthwhile.  Although there are many informal collaborative note-taking approaches, which include posting notes, or even selling notes or old tests, a more dynamic approach can lead to more effective learning.

One way is to open a discussion thread and to list key terms, and ask your fellow students to list the first words that come to mind.  Class members are free to agree or disagree, based on their experience with the text.  They must defend their positions.

Another approach is to ask fellow students to share their responses to the articles for the course and to list key concepts.  They can also list issues which inspire them or provoke them to disagree.  Again, they have to support and defend their decisions.

There are many benefits of collaborative note-taking.  In addition to encouraging deeper learning, it allows social learning to take place.  It reinforces knowledge, and it requires one to exercise critical thinking skills.  A sense of community is developed and certain needs (for recognition, affiliation, accomplishment) can be met.  Finally, such interaction - while enjoyable and challenging -- can be very motivating.

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