Special Feature: On Note-Taking (Part II)

Increasingly, we hear members question how and to whom they provide note-taking accommodations. New teaching styles, database programs, and note-taking technologies are pushing us to reconsider what “note-taking” really is: what it means to experience a barrier related to capturing information during a class lecture and how we can set-up systems that encourage skill development while ensuring that students with disabilities are not excluded. Beginning below and extending into the next edition of the Hub, we are pleased to share a summary of issues and resources pertinent to note-taking accommodations from Paul Harwell of Texas A&M University.

Note-taking Accommodations and Technology: The Basics (Part II)

Paul Harwell – Texas A&M University

Note-taking accommodations are an increasingly important topic that require thoughtful discussion, but we often ignore it so that we may focus on seemingly riskier and more challenging issues. It is difficult to determine whether students’ concerns with note-taking are born out of disability or due to a lack of strategy and experience as a notetaker. Most likely, there is a combination of disability and strategy at play, and it makes it even more important that disability services professionals work to ensure that students with disabilities utilize effective accommodations and strategies to improve access. That should include not only critically deciding what types of accommodation are the right fit, but also providing some coaching on how to best use those accommodations with other note-taking strategies. This resource is intended to help disability services professionals work with a more deliberate understanding of accommodations, strategies, and tools. 

Supplementary Accommodations (Independent Accommodations)

Typically, it seems recording lecture audio makes it possible for students to have access to the information and allows them to take chances on improving their notetaking. The option to record audio takes away pressure to hear and write every word because they can go back to the information they missed later. If there is also a difficulty with writing verbal lecture and things displayed on the board, then students may require copies of PowerPoints and lecture materials or take photos of the board as needed to free up time and ability to process the information and write only the necessary notes. In either case, the students have access to the information at a later time to fill in any gaps in their own notes, but they have to capture their own notes for those to be meaningful. Knowing the recording will allow students to fill in gaps, students can actually begin paraphrasing and using shorthand to write down what is important for their needs instead of writing every word. That freedom can also create confidence and remove some of the anxiety of participating in class.

Peer Notetakers (Dependent Accommodations)

The other common accommodation for notetaking is the use of peer notetakers. This guide is not designed to address best practices for implementing peer notetaker systems because that varies widely with campus culture and context. Instead, this section is focused on the overuse of peer notetakers. There will always be students who require someone else’s notes to access class information, but I argue that it should only be utilized when a student cannot take notes for themselves. For instance, a student that cannot physically write or type notes, a student who is watching an interpreter during the entire class, or maybe a student with an auditory processing disorder may truly need a peer notetaker of some type to ensure they have notes to study from later. However, it seems we often assign this accommodation because it is easier than explaining how to use other options or because it is easier than arguing with an instructor to share their PowerPoints. Still sometimes students argue they NEED the accommodation and we did not ask enough questions to determine if that was because they cannot take notes or because the student was uncomfortable with the challenge of being an independent notetaker.

Ultimately, the overuse of a peer notetaker accommodation is an easy mistake we all have made. I think the best method to guard against this is to be sure to engage in the interactive process to determine whether the student is capable of taking independent notes and what accommodations or strategies can supplement that process. If they do require accommodations that are more dependent in nature, it should be clear why it is necessary. Another question to ask is whether the choice is truly an accommodation for the student, or if it was chosen to accommodate an instructor’s preferences or fears related to notetaking accommodations.


There is a wide variety of tools out there for notetaking. Most software and technology focus on organization, recording audio, or both. There is no exhaustive or definitive list of options either because technology and software evolve so rapidly. Instead, I will share a few common options that have typically been successful or discussed among the profession. Importantly, I think it is important to understand the problem a tool solves more than knowing the tools. As someone in my office said recently, “When you focus on the tool rather than the problem you are trying to solve, you have already missed the point.”

Microsoft OneNote (Free: Windows, Mac, Mobile)

Increasingly, students prefer to type their notes and organize them electronically. Microsoft OneNote is a free tool that works across platforms (Windows, Mac, and mobile devices/tablets). It allows students to type their notes, keep them organized like a traditional notebook, import other files like handouts or PowerPoints, and it has a recording feature that simultaneously syncs lecture audio with typed notes like a smart pen. The best thing about it is that most students already have it on their devices and students can use it even if they do not want to record audio. OneNote may be one of the most intuitive apps for managing the organization of notes during a single semester, and across an academic career.

Other Software/Apps (Cost Varies Free to Paid: Windows, Mac, Mobile)

There are dozens of other apps for laptops and tablets assist in taking and organizing notes and separate apps that record audio. There are increasingly more that do both simultaneously. You can typically find them under productivity lists of app stores; common examples include OneNote, Evernote and Notability. Students are often telling me about seemingly random and obscure note apps they found on their own, too. The main question to ask students is whether the tool they found solves their concerns rather than focusing on if it is the app you knew about in advance.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker (Paid: Windows, Mac)

Another big named app in the field is Sonocent Audio Notetaker. Many people have adopted this software for their campus and many have positive things to say. Still, I am not sure that it is better than the free OneNote option. To be fair, the two companies have very different goals for how notes are collected. Sonocent was designed to focus on the audio portion of lecture even though there are options to type supplemental notes and import handouts. In contrast, OneNote seems to be more of a traditional notetaking experience moved to a computer and with the option to sync recordings. I believe Sonocent does a better job at connecting with disability services offices, but many are still unaware of the free option students are already carrying around in their backpack. I also know that Sonocent has attempted to study improvement in grades after using their software, but it is not obvious if those improvements are due to their particular software, or if it is due to simply having some software intervention regardless of brand. Until there is a side-by-side study, it will be impossible to know.

Smartpens and Digital Recorders

The only other tools I will discuss are traditional digital recorders and smartpens. Livescribe smartpens have been the go-to device for recording in the field for some time. The pen is about as intuitive as a device can get, but the computer interface can be a little more challenging. There are two types of Livescribe smartpens, one uses a built-in microphone and storage and the other uses Bluetooth to a mobile device to capture audio. Both options work well for their intended use. There are some durability issues with the pen displays, but the company typically seems willing to help resolve those defects. There are other smartpen brands on the market, but they do not seem to integrate recording and writing like the Livescribe brand.

Digital recorders and apps to record on smartphones or laptops are still useful tools as well. The best way to use these devices are to coach students to monitor the recording timer while taking notes. For instance, if a student realized they zoned out for the last few minutes of lecture, they can write the current time stamp into their notes to have an idea of where they need to go in the recording to find the information the missed. Similarly, students may realize they are falling behind or want to put the pen down to listen momentarily, and they can do this more easily if they write the current time on the recording so they can skip directly to it later. Without this guidance, many students record lecture, but never listen to it because they do not want to listen to the entire class all over again.