Here’s how collaborative notes typically work: on a rotating basis, students (usually one or two) take notes during class and then post them online. The collaborative notes are intended to support rather than replace individual note-taking, although they do provide absent students information about content covered during the session. Generally, posted notes are not graded.
Is this a strategy worth considering? A new faculty member (Harbin, 2020) teaching a required introductory course says yes, describing these notes as “one of the best pedagogical choices I made my first semester on the tenure track” (p. 214). In this American government course, two students took notes and posted them within 24 hours of the class session.
Harbin identifies three benefits that the strategy had in her course. First, it leveled the playing field. Students arrived in the course with various levels of prior knowledge and equally varied note-taking skills. Those with good skills provided examples for those without them. I'd add that peer pressure also helps to make this strategy effective. If students know that their notes will be on public view, that motivates more careful and detailed note-taking, and that may start to show students the value of a good set of notes. In Harbin’s course, students started a chat group, and that group discussed what kind of notes they should be taking and posting. For the posted notes, they decided that the note-takers should use a color system to distinguish between information the teacher presented, the note-taker’s reactions to the content, and other student comments made during class discussion. That sounds like more initiative than is typical in a required course—these were Naval Academy cadets—but how students opted to code the notes could be a design feature of the strategy.
Second, Harbin writes that the strategy provided “a consistent access point to assess student comprehension and learning” (p. 216). In most courses, teachers hear from a few vocal students, not the more reserved ones. In Harbin’s course, the posted notes of those less vocal students gave them the opportunity to express their ideas and understandings, and that benefitted the teacher. It enabled her to better respond to the comprehension issues of all students in the course.
Finally, Harbin reports that the strategy improved class discussion. Students learned each other’s names, more of them participated, and they listened more intently to each other’s comments. The collaborative notes, which Harbin regularly referred to in class, became a shared resource that created a sense of community in the course.
If the idea of collaborative note-taking sounds intriguing, this article is worth a look. Harbin honestly identifies some issues to consider before adopting the strategy. For example, early on, the quality of the notes students posted ranged widely. These were first-semester college students, and so Harbin tried to help them by building structure and consistency in the material she presented. Each session opened with an “On the Horizon” slide containing bullet points of upcoming topics and assignment due dates. That was followed by a “What We’re Doing Today” slide. Once per class session but at different times, a “Question to Consider” slide popped up. Sometimes students answered it in writing, sometimes they discussed it, and other times the question closed the session.
The collaborative notes strategy worked almost too well in the course. Some students stopped taking notes, relying exclusively on those taken by the designated note-takers. Harbin recommends explicit communication about the need for individual note-taking and designing assessments that prevent that tendency, such as asking students to explain content in the posted notes and permitting students use their individual notes to answer quiz questions.
Harbin thinks the disparity in note-taking can also be addressed by a pre-class survey that asks students about their level of interest in course topics and perceived sense of their strengths in writing, reading, and note-taking. Then the teachers might designate those with stronger skills and greater interest as note-takers early on or pair students so that both note-takers do not have low levels of perceived skill.
Collaborative notes are not the panacea solution to students’ lack of note-taking skills or their tendency to think that note-taking isn’t necessary in the course and won’t be in their careers. But experiences like those reported in this article lend credence to the idea that collaborative notes can change that thinking.
Harbin, M. B. (2020). Collaborative note-taking: A tool for creating a more inclusive college classroom. College Teaching, 68(4), 214–220. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2020.1786664