Collaborative note taking is an activity where students share the load of creating notes from a class or resource. They work in groups to identify key material, examples, etc and record these in a shared document. I’ve mainly seen this activity in relation to accessibility and inclusion. For some reason, a student may not be able to take notes, or effective notes, but by working together the class creates a set of shared notes that support that person’s learning. However, increasing evidence is showing, that like so many activities done for access and inclusion, collaborative note taking has benefits for everyone in the class.
Costley and Fanguy (2021) found that students who were taking the collaborative online notes rated their own learning as being higher compared to students who took their own notes. There were increased opportunities for explanation and exploration with the collaborative notes that contributed to the collaborative notes being more complete compared to individual notes. Courtney, Costley, Baldwin, Lee, and Fanguy (2022) found that collaborative note takers performed better than individual note takers on tasks that primarily used recall. Interestingly, Costley and Fanguy (2021) found that while content related engagement was higher, students often reported higher levels of confusion about concepts. As an educator, this doesn’t surprise me, but I think it could have benefits. I think that seeing other people put notes into their own words and ask questions increases the variety and questions that any individual has access to. If you haven’t thought of a question personally, then you may not have realized that a particular concept is confusing to you. It makes sense on the surface. But seeing someone else’s question, then triggers you to think and reflect which can highlight additional topics that you don’t fully understand yet. At the same time, by creating the notes collaboratively, groups can help fill in information so that eventually the understanding is higher.
Based on these studies and others in this area, it does look like taking notes as a group is helpful. But you may have noticed that the one article found that there were performance improvements on recall tasks. Does that mean that other types of tasks didn’t see improvement? Skill application tasks were better handled by individual note takers in the study by Courtney and colleagues (2022). But let’s break this down a little. The skill that learners were applying was writing. Students who completed their own individual notes performed better on writing tasks. This, to me, isn’t a conclusion that we can generalize to other skill based tasks and collaborative notes. Regardless of whether note taking and academic writing are identical, students who get more practice writing can often write more effectively. It’s still a form of practice, kind of like cross training in sports – my cross country skiing will help my cycling even though they aren’t identical movements.
So, while we shouldn’t assume that collaborative note taking is always going to be better, there is enough evidence from these and other research studies to support their use. If you’re interested, you can see a collaborative notes document that I set up for one of the courses I taught. Only the prompts for the first week are included.
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