Supporting engagement through note-taking

decorative image

The subskill as a key to cognitive autonomy: How can note-taking support metacognitive engagement with a research task?

This post is about a deceptively simple concept, note-taking. Or, rather, it is about teaching students to take notes. This post is about how achieving poor outcomes in what I once treated and still think of as something of a subskill pushed me not just to find better ways of teaching note-taking but to begin to rethink the role of note-taking in cognition and metacognition, and in the larger goals of a writing class.

Most semesters, I teach one or more sections of an introductory college research writing class, the second of a two-semester first-year writing course sequence. My overarching goal for the students in this required class is that they will eventually be able to flexibly adopt the litany of literacy, rhetorical, informational and technology skills involved in research writing to adapt to any research-writing situation. Effective writing by definition is a highly metacognitive activity and this course is a “gateway” course in which students are, ideally, apprenticed into both the cognitive and metacognitive habits of mind required to be a successful college student.

I often think of note-taking as a subskill. It’s a cognitive skill, a building-block, one that leads to the larger cognitive goals I aim for, such as students’ ability to read and write in the genres of specific discourse communities, to employ different stages of the writing process at need, to develop a research workflow, to think rhetorically about the writing situation at hand, and to understand what sources are available, are appropriate, and how to find and evaluate them. Undergirding and interacting with all of these skills are technology skills. Expanding beyond them are the larger metacognitive capacities that allow students to transfer cognitive skills to new writing situations. Here’s an unscientific and oversimplified depiction of how I see the components of a writing course. Everything below the top triangle is a subskill. Cognitive subskills, such as reading comprehension, are supported by digital and analog technological skills, such as note-taking. Metacognitive capacity builds with the development of subskills but also informs their effective use and takes place within their use.

One of the challenges present in designing and teaching research writing is deciding which subskills to teach and how to teach them in ways that use technology to improve research reading and writing skills, develop and achieve research strategies, and understand the technological nature of the information and information-sharing communities students will work with (ISTE Standards for Students, 2016. See Standard 1.). Another challenge is to consider the sequencing of subskills and another is to consider how much practice might be required for a student to gain enough mastery of a subskill that she’ll incorporate it into her cognitive toolbox to use at will.

Some leaders in higher education have called for a return to hand-written notes. While law professor Carol Steiker believes that reclaiming the lost art of hand-penned lecture notes is requisite for students to deeply engage the themes of a course (qtd. in Turkle, 2015) and one of my strategies has been to adapt the lecture-focused Cornell note-taking system to digital and research-based note-taking activities, I’m neither satisfied that I’ve sufficiently explored how to teach students to take notes, nor that the question of digital or analog is the right question, nor that I’ve situated teaching note-taking sufficiently within the larger goal of teaching students to develop a research workflow.

This was brought home to me in at mid-semester in fall 2017, when I asked students do some reflective metacognition by taking a survey in which they rated their effectiveness and discussed their personal approaches to various research skills. I was pleased that nearly the entire class seemed confident and thriving in their inquiry projects, except that many students admitted that they basically didn’t take notes, despite all the previous exposure to and (what I believed to have been) practice with different forms of note-taking I had provided.

Thus note-taking became a top priority in the redesign considerations I put into the next iteration of the course. My question began as threefold: How could I combine (1) assignment design, (2) digital annotation and note-taking tools, and (3) appropriate levels of student autonomy in a series of scaffolding assignments aimed at developing note-taking skills in order to achieve both initial competence and student motivation to use note-taking as a research strategy?

To address the first and third considerations, I drew on the work of Kevin Washburn, under whom I studied a decade ago to become a coach for K-6 teachers in designing reading comprehension curricula. One of the principles I learned from Washburn’s Architecture of Learning: Instructional Design for the Learning Brain is the value of breaking down complex comprehension tasks into specific skills that can be taught explicitly and practiced until some degree of automaticity is developed, then engaging students in the elaboration and extension of thinking that takes places when these discrete skills are recombined by the individual learner.

A breakthrough for me as a teacher at the time had been the degree of practice that might actually be necessary to master a discrete skill. One of the challenges in designing a first-year college writing course is the sheer volume of skills involved in research writing, and the temptation to sacrifice practice for coverage. But based on my work with Washburn and based on a qualitative study of the results yielded when various types and degrees of student autonomy were allowed by teachers, I decided to teach note-taking early in the class over the course of at least five assignments, with less student procedural autonomy so that students could master note-taking skills before using them in more cognitively autonomous ways (Stefanou et al., 2004). A related consideration was the nature of the assignments I designed. These, in turn, would be determined to some extent by the note-taking tools I chose.

The question of what note-taking tools to select (whether from the battery of techniques I already use or whether the tools are digital or analog) won’t be fully addressed in this post. As I write, at the conclusion of the first week of classes, I’ve designed and implemented two assignments focusing on one broad note-taking skill (annotation) and built upon student learning of one digital note-taking technology. I’ll describe that tool and the assignment design at the conclusion of this post.

Before jumping in to researching different note-taking apps, I wanted to explore broader pedagogical considerations of note-taking as a learning tool and as a set of technologies (whether digital or analog). This approach employs Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) “backward design” principle of beginning with learning objectives, and working backward to deciding what would evidence learning before designing instructional activities to accomplish that learning. What are the most important note-taking skills for a college research writer? How could I simplify or amplify these skills as needed by my given student population, and sequence them in an order that will best support students’ ability to learn to develop autonomy in engaging big research tasks?

I also wanted to think through the degree to which cognition and metacognition might be present in particular ways of note-taking. If note-taking actually can involve a great degree of cognitive and metacognitive skill, how could I simplify a note-taking technique enough to make it initially accessible and motivating, yet help see students that the approach could be open-ended?

It’s important to understand the difference between cognition and metacognition. Compositionist Howard Tinberg (2015) defines cognition as “the acquisition and application of knowledge through complex mental processes,” such as using the conventions of a genre and determining how to rhetorically engage an audience, whereas he defines metacognition as “the ability to perceive the very steps by which success occurs and to articulate the various qualities and components that contribute in significant ways to the production of effective writing” (p. 76). I quote Tinberg’s distinction because it reminds me that the key to achieving the central outcomes of writing classes like mine is metacognition. Having this clearly in mind is one key to thinking “backward” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Jon Stanfill’s post on the larger issue of developing a personal way to manage a research workflow, which includes not only taking notes, but also organizing and using them, made me realize that I need to think more carefully through the nature of the ultimate goal that I have for students. Just how do I want them to “flexibly adopt the litany of literacy, rhetorical, informational and technology skills involved in research writing to adapt to any research-writing situation”? While Stanfill’s post is written by a doctoral student to a professional Digital Humanities audience, and I’m working with first-year undergraduates, I want my students to be working toward real-world research practices. While the research workflow I want my students to design for themselves will be simpler than Stanfill’s personal system, his blog made me realize that I need both a clearer sense of how I want my students to achieve autonomy in their research designs and that I need a clearer plan for how I design my own research practices so that I can better assist students in developing theirs.

Stanfill begins with a diagram of the process by which his notes enter his digital workspace and become organized. He provides links to technical skills and descriptions of concepts such as OpenMeta tagging which can help me develop my sense of how technology interfaces with a digital organizational system, and though this is beyond the scope of my immediate assignment design needs, it helps me see how both understanding how the technology works and understanding what is possible can help me create my own research workflow and eventually make sound choices when helping students develop theirs. Stanfill’s ideas are beyond what I could include in my first two assignments, but I hope to see them resurface in the next assignments and in how I teach the final stages of the independent student project.

As I begin to move “backward” toward evaluating specific note-taking technologies that might work best for my students, I want to develop sound criteria for evaluating these tools rather than selecting them on the basis of familiarity or popularity.

The first reading skill that I teach is annotation. Annotation is in fact a collection of skills. I teach it first because to annotate is to read actively, to interact with the text, to employ reading strategies, and to write a comprehension “roadmap” on a text. Traditionally, I’ve taught annotation first by hand. I decided to find an easy-to-use annotation application instead because I wanted to find a technology that would help students think forward to a workflow, to bridge the gap between a successful note-taking experience and the need to manage a larger volume of notes. My requirements for an annotation tool were that it was free; nearly immediately accessible for use with two or fewer clicks; provided the basic functionalities of highlighting, underlining, drawing, writing text notes, and erasing; would work with PDF documents; and could result in easily downloaded and saved annotations. I chose, which met these criteria. I scored the tool using the Triple E Rubric for App Evaluation, and although the scoring is somewhat subjective and dependent upon assumptions made about students, I saw that even with a conservative approach to scoring the tool, or a similar annotator scored in the highest category of potential, with high marks evenly distributed across the three categories of Engagement with, Enhancement of, and Extension of learning. I think a potential flaw of the Triple E framework is that I was scoring the teaching methodology and the skill as much as I was scoring the specific app because these were necessarily intertwined. On the other hand, because of its ease of use, I think the app is rather transparent and this makes it difficult to separate from its application when evaluating it. The app avoids merely simulating handwritten annotation by allowing for faster, neater, more systematic, and more organized annotations, as well as by keeping records in PDF files, which can be used for multiple later research purposes, including text searches.

A key consideration for incorporating the annotation tool was how to teach the technology itself and integrate that technology instruction effectively into the first week’s instructional design. This needed to be done in a way that would enable all students, regardless of previous technology capacities, to feel confident and thus motivated in using the tool. And it needed to be accomplished in a short amount of time that would not sap cognitive energy from the primary tasks of reading and understanding.

To accomplish this, I adapted Miriam Posner’s approach to teaching technology skills in an environment similar to that of my college classroom, which is essentially a computer lab in which all students have computers. Posner begins with discussing the limitations of teaching inquiry-supporting technology skills through the method of demonstrating on the large screen and having each student learn by independently following each step. She addresses the issue of performance anxiety or technology-induced anxiety that I too have seen to be a significant learning impediment in an “all eyes on me” tutorial. Posner’s blog then outlines a learner-centered, self-paced, peer-supported approach in which she develops a simple but explicit printed quick guide, then pairs students to use the guide to work independently through learning the technology skill. Students can indicate their progress by placing color coded sticky notes on their computer screens that indicate if the pair is in progress, needs help, or is finished (a strategy Posner borrowed from yet another teacher). During the skill-learning session, the instructor is free to circulate and address needs.

I allocated the first two of five initial note-taking assignments to teaching annotation using the annotation tool The introduction of the skill of annotation was located within a learner-focused module on strategies for reading complex text. Using a modification of Posner’s method, student pairs learned to use in 10-15 minutes and created a prototype version of the first annotation assignment. Student pairs then implemented this technology and practiced the annotation skills that would be used in a follow-up homework assignment, combining this guided practice with the reading strategies they had previously generated, to analyze a piece of text in class that was then discussed. This technology-supported, annotation-supported discussion allowed students to engage with the text, extend their processing of the text toward the unit final objectives, and was enhanced by the digitally annotated texts on their screens that students could reference during the discussion. They were then ready for their first note-taking exercise, which in turn will prepare them for a major text-processing writing assignment.

Click here to see a student work sample using Xodo



ISTE Standards for Students. (2016). Retrieved from International Society for Technology in Education web site:

Kivunja, C. (2014). Teaching students to learn and to work well with 21st century skills: Unpacking the career and life skills domain of the new learning paradigm. International journal of higher education, 4(1), 1-11. Retrieved from

Stefanou, C.R., Perencevich, K.C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J.C. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision making and ownership. Educational psychologist 39(2), 97-110.

Tinberg, H. (2015). Metacognition is not cognition. In Adler-Kassner, L. & Wardle, E. (Eds.), Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies (pp. 75-76). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Turkle, S. (2015). How to teach in an age of distraction. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 62(6). Retrieved from

Wiggins, G.P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Assoc. for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

3 Replies to “Supporting engagement through note-taking”

  1. Stephanie, I enjoyed reading the logical approach to your note-taking issue. You tackled this issue like a true researcher! I appreciated the background information as a foundation for all of the approaches and the tools you chose to investigate for your note-taking question. In particular, I liked that you used a summative assessment to understand the knowledge-gaps (or in this case, the skill-gaps) that your students have. I also enjoyed reading your examples on how you would implement each of this strategies or tools in the context of this research writing class. I would love to hear how these new strategies were received by your students!

    1. Thanks, Catalina! Implementing teaching strategies is always a work in progress. I am fortunate that I also administer the writing tutoring center at my college, so my writing students are now coming in to the writing center for help with the literacy and writing assignments I just designed, as well as with questions about the new technology tutorials. Today, I got to observe a tutoring session where the tutor is working with my students and assignments; afterward I ask the tutors for suggestions on my assignments and instructional design and I give them feedback on their tutoring. The tutors have responded positively to the apps I chose (Xodo and Coggle so far), and suggested that we develop workshops for the apps based on my tutorials. in some ways the feedback on my teaching that I get by working with tutors is even more valuable than asking for direct student feedback. The collaborative nature of the tutor-driven writing lab is suggesting a great think tank model for me in terms of the big picture of curriculum development. Training and empowering student tutors, even at the two-year level, is one way in which students can be “engaged as change agents,” as Jisc advises in its approach to developing students’ digital literacy (and I would add, all 21st century learning literacies) at the institutional/program and class levels. In the writing lab, faculty and tutors, who see things as both learners and teachers, can basically have collaborative hacker sessions about how to improve learning that can provide near immediate feedback for the instructor as well as generate vision for curriculum development, and for curriculum as something that happens not only in the classroom but across the institution. In the future, I hope to be able to address the question of how a writing center can be an incubator for curriculum and instruction innovation.

  2. Stephanie, what a great post! I appreciate how you started your process with student input in order to focus on teaching a skill that seemed to be an area of need. Thanks for including influences from your own academic experiences as well as an example of your own implementation of your plan!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *