Note-Taking in the Digital Age

A great misconception that exists is that just because an individual — especially a young person — owns a device, they are “tech savvy.” As a result, we often assume students are familiar with best practices for using digital tools when, in fact, what happens is they tend to use in a substitution manner instead of a transformative one. In the recent article “The 4Ss of Note-Taking,” Beth Holland, an instructor with EdTechTeacher, presents a transformative approach to digital note-taking:

“Before making a blanket statement that one device may be better than another (e.g., pen vs. laptop) or calling into question what may be the best note-taking system, what if we approach the concept by identifying what is best for individual students? In other words, does the system . . .

  • Adequately support the students’ learning needs?
  • Allow students to save their notes to multiple locations?
  • Let students search for salient points?
  • Permit students to share with peers and teachers?”

As an educator and/or student, as you begin thinking about your note-taking ecosystem, here are some digital tools for your consideration:

Evernote evernote

Evernote is a cross-platform tool to create a digital note-taking ecosystem. From taking notes that you can access anywhere and anytime to organizing your research, Evernote allows you to create and curate your content anytime, anywhere. Within your “notebooks” you can create multiple notes. In addition to text, the notes can include images (which you can annotate), audio, links, PDFs web clips, and more. Evernote also works for those who prefer the paper experience, allowing you to scan your written notes and make them searchable.

Tagging is perhaps the greatest missed feature when discussing digital note-taking. Evernote has the ability to tag notes, a proactive way to organize and review your notes. Creating tags forces you to go back and look for common themes and topics. There is no right or wrong tag — as you sort through the information, you will find connections that are meaningful and make sense to you.

For many PA students, learning the signs and symptoms of diseases can be challenging, especially since many disease processes have so many similarities. Students might spend valuable time rummaging through paper notes to search for a specific symptom. With Evernote, they can search keywords and terms and have the information within seconds.

Tagging allows you to create connections between pieces of information, chunking it and preparing it for storage in your long-term memory. With the experience of understanding the entire curriculum and knowing the common themes and topics that will be addressed and built upon, you can recommend tags to students during lecture.

When students meet together in study groups, they should share the tags they’ve used and explain why those tags were chosen. Talking about these decisions will further reinforce the ideas — helping to solidify the material in your mind.

Organizing and tagging your notes early on will also help down the line, allowing you to easily retrieve information as you get ready for your rotations and as you prepare to take the PANCE. It could be a brilliant tool for organizing and cross-indexing for a self-study, too.

There is a free version of Evernote, a Plus membership for $24.99, and a Premium membership for $49.99. To get started using Evernote, watch my video tutorial.

iAnnotate  iannotate

iAnnotate is a sophisticated annotation app that is available on android, iOS, and as a chrome extension. It allows you to annotate, manage, tag, search, and share documents and images. What sets iAnnotate apart from the many other annotation tools is its intuitive interface and comprehensive set of tools that can be customized to meet your needs. Highlighters, pencils, and notes are common tools in annotation apps. iAnnotate takes things to a new level with the ability to add voice and photo annotations — perfect, perhaps, for a simulation lesson.

iAnnotate integrates with all cloud accounts and Microsoft Office. Once documents are opened in iAnnotate, they are converted to PDF files. The excellent organizational features in the library allow you to tag and organize your documents into folders. This app is a handy tool that will transform the way you work with documents and images on a tablet, increasing your productivity.

iAnnotate is also great for educators. Use it to grade rubrics, sign and send forms, and convert web pages to PDF.

The iAnnotate app is $9.99. To get started using iAnnotate, watch my video tutorial.

Paper by 53 paper by 53

Paper by 53 is a blank notebook that allows you to create sketchnotes: a visual representation of your notes. At first glance, this may seem rather daunting, and you may think, I’m not good at drawing so this will never work for me.

Like the other tools we have talked about, it’s about individual process and how you choose to make sense of the information presented to you. Don’t worry about what another person’s notes look like — look at how organizing information makes sense to you. For PA students, Paper53 could be an ideal way to take notes about the organ systems.

Brad Ovenell-Carter, director of the Centre for Innovation at the Mulgrave School in Vancouver created an excellent video that guides you through the basics of creating a sketchnote. Try it out as a way to review different topics.

Greg Kulowiec, an instructor with EdTechTeacher, found that when listening to lectures, he enjoyed taking notes on paper. Then when he went home to process and share what he had learned, he combined Paper by 53 with Explain Everything, an image creation and screencasting tool to enhance the analog with digital. Take a look as Kulowiec shares his learning journey.

The price is certainly right. Paper by 53 is free. The Explain Everything app costs $2.99.

Before you begin thinking about a device or a tool that you want to use, ask what it is you want to accomplish. And remember, these tools do not have to be used in isolation — you can tag and curate all of your notes into Evernote for future reference and to share with your colleagues or fellow students.

An Educational Technology Course for Educators

If you would like to learn more about how to integrate technology into the classroom, we invite you to join Digital Literacy: Faculty Edition, our professional learning course available on iTunes U. Here we will explore how you can begin integrating a variety of tools to enhance and develop your curriculum and instruction, providing students with an interactive and engaging learning experience.

The debate surrounding digital note-taking is one that will likely continue for many years to come. What are your thoughts on the topic? What digital note-taking strategies have you shared with your students? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Tweet us @paeaonline or send an email to