Student note taking is usually encouraged to help students process, summarize, and synthesize new information. Some students and instructors are also exploring the idea of collaborative note taking using online tools like Google Docs and wikis. The idea seems great: students in a class share the arduous task of taking notes during reading or lecture. The efforts of many working together should surpass the effectiveness of an individual note-taker. Shared documents and wikis seem to be the most common way to organize group notes. Google Docs work well because they allow multiple contributors to take notes simultaneously on the same document. Wikis are beneficial because they allow for the collective building of web pages, with the potential to better organize and search by topic or date.
I recently returned from a regional conference where collective note taking is utilized each year. As I tried to contribute to the chaotic, synchronous “dumping” of information on a session’s notes document, I started to consider the less optimal realities of group note taking. Chaos aside, are the terse comments and summaries of others really meaningful to anyone other than the author? Most of the phrases jotted down on the shared notes page made little sense to me, even though I was listening to the same conversation as the collective authors. After a few attempts to join in the collective note taking process at the conference, I found myself reverting back to my own personal note taking strategy instead.
In the weeks following, I continued to reflect on the practice of collective note taking and decided that there are indeed benefits to the practice if it is carefully designed. For example, if I were to use such a strategy, I would organize students into smaller groups of maybe three or four, rather than asking an entire class (or large group) to simultaneously work on one document. It also seems that for the strategy to work well, the instructor must be involved to some extent. Even though faculty bemoan teaching study skills, I see real value in the instructor providing some resources or guidance for effective note taking. This may be simply sharing a handout or video found online. Or, faculty might use the first day of class to establish the practice, model it, and briefly discuss effective strategies.
There are several ways to effectively utilize collaborative note taking. One popular strategy is to assign roles and responsibilities to each member of a note taking team. For instance, one person may summarize questions and answers asked during class, another might list key terms, people, or dates, and a third person could note connections to prior readings or discussions. Alternatively, faculty might consider having students take hand-written notes during class for later use. Students could be asked to review their personal notes and then collectively organize major themes and takeaways from the week (providing points as motivation). Or, personal notes could be used periodically to create a collective study guide, where each group member contributes to a document designed for exam preparation.
Collective note taking is a great example of an active learning practice that can increase student engagement with content and peers. If you can imagine some benefits and uses for collaborative note taking, I encourage you to give it a try. For assistance setting up collaborative note taking, you can schedule an instructional design consultation. We would also love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.