How are the kids in school taking notes these days?
July 6, 2005 2:56 PM   Subscribe

How are the kids in school taking notes these days?

I'm headed back to grad school this fall, but haven't been in a university environment since pen and paper were the norm (the 90s). My question is a two-parter:

1) Are laptops widely used in the classroom setting, or would I be a big old dork for bringing mine in?
2) What software are the kids taking notes with? I'm inclined toward a simple text editor, but am willing to give a personal wiki or even OneNote a go if peoples' experiences have been good.

If it helps, I'll be in a tech-intensive information management program.
posted by kables to Education (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Though I type much faster than I write, I stuck to pen and paper through my education (Computer Engineering, 2003). There were plenty of big old dorks with laptops, but I would have been too tempted to simply transcribe the lectures (when I wasn't playing games), which isn't what good note taking is about. I guess some sort of tablet would let you jot down the main points, scribble thoughts in the margins, and sketch out quick diagrams... but a notebook gives you all that while being cheaper and easier to carry.
posted by Eamon at 3:11 PM on July 6, 2005

No, plenty of people have laptops, you won't stick out. Last semester I even saw people with PocketPCs and external keyboards. As far as I can tell, everyone just types their notes into Word.
posted by exhilaration at 3:13 PM on July 6, 2005

If you were in my classes, you'd be a dork. Don't let that stop you though. I can type faster than I can write, but I can jot down notes / drawings / math equations a hell of a lot faster on paper than on a computer.

If I were to make the switch and start keeping notes on my computer I'd use a local wiki, but that's just me.
posted by pwb503 at 3:14 PM on July 6, 2005

In my experience, it depends on the class. In small classes with discussions and personal interaction, yeah, laptops are a bit weird. In lecture halls, they're just as popular as pen and paper, if not moreso.

As far as software, I use VoodooPad, a personal wiki editor. I love it, but it's a Mac-only program. Most of my friends (PC and Mac) use plain ol' MS Word to take notes.
posted by danb at 3:28 PM on July 6, 2005

I used paper because I like diagramming stuff and outlining it doesn't always work. One of my classmates used OneNote though, and it was amazing as he could cross-reference to previous lectures in an instant.
posted by SpecialK at 3:30 PM on July 6, 2005

In general, I agree with pwb503, don't let being a big dork stop you from doing whatever it is you think will further your educational experience. However, I've found that whether or not using a laptop is frowned upon really varies from class to class. I'm not sure exactly what makes it okay in one class to whip out the laptop and not another, but you usually get a sense after the first few days or so. If you do decide to be the lone laptop user, try looking into something that will muffle the sound of your keyboard.
posted by Boydrop at 3:30 PM on July 6, 2005

An excellent alternative that I use all the time is a PDA with an external keyboard. I use a Sony SJ20 with a Belkin G700 keyboard and Wordsmith (which easily syncs to MS Word on my desktop PC), but there are plenty of other options. I prefer this solution over a laptop because: 1) it weighs less than one pound total and 2) the battery lasts weeks instead of hours and 3) it fits easily in my bag with all of my other notes, books, and whatnot. Oh, and there's no waiting for it to go through a lengthy boot sequence - I press one button, and Wordsmith is instantly open and ready to go.
posted by gwenzel at 3:30 PM on July 6, 2005

I use my TabletPC, and I love it. OneNote is excellent for note-taking, and I generally get an envious stare or two.
posted by SlyBevel at 3:31 PM on July 6, 2005

I just graduated from Virginia Tech in May, and in most of my classes -- often very large ones -- I was the only student with a laptop. Many students have laptops, but they're these battleships that can't fit on the chiclet-sized desks, so they use pen and paper. In smaller classes, I definitely stood out, but it made a world of a difference to me to type on my 12" iBook, rather than write longhand, particularly come exam time.
posted by waldo at 3:33 PM on July 6, 2005

I'm in a liberal arts grad school environment, and the shift is happening here - some classrooms are still pen & paper, but lectures and certain profs have a pretty good percentage of laptops. A friend of mine who just went back to law school says that there, pretty much everyone is typing. I'd bet that undergrads and more tech-y or professional areas have higher ratios of laptops. But like I said, even in my heavily heideggerian / technology=alienation environment, there are plenty of computers...

a)you're a big old dork already - you're going back to school 'cause you want to, right? embrace it, dude.
b)I just use Word.
posted by mdn at 3:35 PM on July 6, 2005

If I were to do it again, I'd use a Tablet PC with OneNote. The better ones have a detatchable "slate" which reduces the weight and bulk; OneNote will help to catalogue and categorise your notes for easy searching.
posted by blag at 3:38 PM on July 6, 2005

Response by poster: I am a big old dork already. True. But I'm also sensitive to social conventions -- I don't want to eat with my left hand when it's strictly verboten, know what I'm saying? This is why I heart the mefites and asked this question.

Software-wise, sounds like most people are using a text editor, though a few are going the OneNote/wiki route. Guess I'll have to feel it out.

posted by kables at 3:41 PM on July 6, 2005

Best answer: I'm an undergrad at a large public university. In really big lecture classes, there's usually a couple people with laptops. I never found them to be particular dorky, but they do tend to be the sit-in-the-front-row types.

I remember one guy (a note-taker for one of our star athletes!) would sit in the front row and record audio of the lectures using the built-in mic on his laptop while typing up outlines in Word. I don't know how good the audio quality was, but I can imagine audio might be helpful in some lecture classes. Star Athlete certainly needed all the help he could get.

Most people just take notes in Word, and when peeking over their shoulders, they seem to spend more time correcting the formatting of their outlines than actually taking notes.

I've seen notes taken through One Note and it looks like the ability to put sketches directly into your notes is quite useful in classes where diagrams are common (e.g., supply/demand curves in econ). If I were a Windows user and had One Note, I'd certainly try it out.

Keep in mind that if you have to take down complex equations, Greek characters, etc. it's a major pain to go to Insert > Symbol... and find the character you need. This is another case where sketching it out in One Note might be faster than trying to format everything correctly in regular type.

And if you have wireless access in the classroom, being online can be really distracting. If I need to actually be paying attention, I take notes with pen and paper. If teachers talk so fast that you can't scribble down the important parts in time, they've either gotten used to repeating themselves or they don't expect you to write down and remember every single thing they say. At least, using a laptop certainly hasn't made the notes I take any better -- they're probably worse.
posted by katieinshoes at 3:41 PM on July 6, 2005

As everyone has said, you won't stick out with a notebook. Personally, typing notes works great for me, except for math-based classes where I'm drawing graphs or writing long equations. In those cases, straight up pencil and paper is hard to beat.

If you're on Windows, allow me to recommend OneNote. I tried all kinds of note-taking options when I started back at school a couple of years ago, and OneNote blew them all away. Give the trial a whirl, you won't be disappointed.
posted by medpt at 3:42 PM on July 6, 2005

Response by poster: A couple more votes for OneNote . . . I already have it and will give it a whirl tonight. :)
posted by kables at 3:49 PM on July 6, 2005

Here at UGA (37k students), using a laptop will make you certainly stick out like a big dork. I recall only one person religiously using a laptop, and that was for a physics class where all the notes were online and he spent the whole time attempting to draw the figures in paint *shrugs*
Then again, trying to jot down the glycolytic pathway is not very conducive in word so a good reason I didn't seen laptops.
However, if I was in a top-down heavy note close like history or poly-sci, my attitude would have changed and I would have hopped on that laptop bandwagon.
posted by jmd82 at 4:07 PM on July 6, 2005

At my law school, I would say at least 90% of students have laptops. And 90% of those use MS Word to take notes, with everyone else split among various note-taking programs.

I myself use OneNote, and I got several inquiries from classmates over the year about it.

OneNote's main advantage over Word is the automatic saving every minute or two. I'm not certain I would say it's "the best", but then I haven't used any other note-taking programs.

I've tried two different methods for taking notes with OneNote over two semesters. One semester using the fancy built-in bulleted lists, note flags, etc. But I found that outlining was almost too easy... I could just call up the proper note flags, and BAM! instant outline. But that took way too much of the review and thinking out of outlining. So second semester I didn't use any bulleted lists or note flags, and outlining was a total pain-in-the-ass. I may try some hybrid form this year.

Pet peeve: I can't figure out for the life of me how to assign a special character to a certain key combo in OneNote. Doing the Insert > Symbol business is a pain in the middle of a lecture.
posted by falconred at 4:27 PM on July 6, 2005

Best answer: At my university, quite a few people use laptops, but as other people have said, it varies on the subject, class size, and teacher. In smaller, discussion-based classes, teachers often frown on laptops because they're often more distracting than useful. [The one exception: a class on comics I took where a significant amount of the coursework was available only in a secure website and it would've been illegible if printed out in black and white.] In large classes, a lot of people use laptops, although from what I've seen most people spend as much time on IM/web-browsing as they do taking notes. In some subjects, like chem or math, there really aren't any programs conducive to quickly writing down complicated diagrams and equations. There, I've never seen anyone using a laptop [except to waste time.] Most people, depending on their level of technical acumen, use Word or various text editors [vi, emacs, pico, etc.]

Myself, I stick to pen and paper. I find I spend too much time on formatting when I take notes on a laptop, and the possibility of opening a browser or a terminal and reading email or webpates is too tempting. I end up feeling like I get more out of it when I write my notes by hand.

Ask the professors beforehand if they'd be bothered by a laptop in the classroom, and try it out - it may work for you, and if it doesn't, you can always switch back to low-tech pencil and paper notes.
posted by ubersturm at 4:43 PM on July 6, 2005

For the last two years of college I used my Sony Vaio laptop. I was one of maybe two or three in a 30 person class that was using one at the time, but I imagine that has since changed.

I didn't have any trouble remaining focused. I sat in the front row most of the time, and that made me force myself to pay attention to the Professor.

I graduated from the University of Akron College of Business, and we had a wireless network. A majority of my professors provided notes in PowerPoint. So, while in class, I could access the notes off the Professors' file share and I didn't have to worry about forgetting my printouts. I found this to be extremely handy.

Also, I commuted to school, so during long breaks (2-3 hours) I would usually stick around. Having a laptop allowed me to prepare assignments during my downtime, and browse the internet when I didn't have anything going on.

On the downside, I think I do remember more when I physically write notes in the margins, but as I got used to using the laptop I was able to adjust by doing it electronically.

Man, I wish personal wikis and OneNote would have been in the mainstream when I was in school. It would have been fun to give those a try.
posted by bwilms at 5:14 PM on July 6, 2005

I was using a laptop ten years ago. Apple emate. The big problems (that the emate solved) was size, battery life and the 'need to write on screen with a stylus.'

The emate got 12-24 hours on a charge.

No net then. Did I stand out? Sure, my 3.89 GPA helped. I took notes, printed them, copied by hand anything I wasn't sure of...and rewrote them as text.
posted by filmgeek at 5:26 PM on July 6, 2005

OneNote's main advantage over Word is the automatic saving every minute or two.

you can configure word to do that (hell, if you don't, you're going to get very frustrated, very quickly).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:28 PM on July 6, 2005

It depends on your class. When I started taking classes again, I used graphing paper pads (the kind with the really small boxes, because I write really small) because they allow me the vertical and horizontal ruling to quickly take notes, bullet, and diagram effectively. I later transcribed those into Word. I moved up to taking notes on my Palm Tungsten T3 with the Infrared keyboard, which worked fine, but I felt drew too much attention to me in the class (this was at a comm. college where everyone mostly still uses pen'n'paper) so I switched back to pad and pen. Then, some girl started coming in with her iBook weekly and I felt stupid for giving up.

I type at about the same speed I write, but I found I spent too much time trying to get Word to indent right (the version on my PDA... don't know how it would be on an actual computer) to actually save me the effort of copying them from paper later. Your mileage will, of course, vary. So I would suggest you not worry about appearances and instead be ready to try a variety of approaches. One class was basically the lecturer reading from his notes, which lent itself to digital notetaking very well. Another was done entirely off the top of the instructor's head, so she tended to jump around a lot and so I ended up needing a piece of paper to jot notes all over and draw arrows back to this or that concept. It would've been hell on wheels to try to reformat all that text, copy/paste, etc. and still keep up taking new notes.

Be flexible! Try a variety of strategies for each class. Best of luck, of course!
posted by Eideteker at 5:35 PM on July 6, 2005

OneNote's main advantage over Word is the automatic saving every minute or two.

OneNote's main advantage over Word is that you can input text freehand, making it just as fast as using pen & paper.
posted by blag at 5:40 PM on July 6, 2005

Response by poster: Wow. Lots of food for thought here. Thank you all again . . .
posted by kables at 11:06 PM on July 6, 2005

I now use my laptop to take notes (in MS Word) in all classes (this wouldn't have really worked for chem/bio/physics though) ... with Google Desktop I can find and reference anything within a couple of seconds. You absorb more of what the professor is saying (I think). And it makes it incredibly easy to write essays. Plus what's really cool is being able to cross-reference notes from other classes.
posted by fourstar at 7:05 AM on July 7, 2005

kables, thank you so much for asking this question.

I may be in the same boat. I'm also returning to school after a long time.

I have some questions, too, folks:
OneNote looks pretty awesome. Is drawing notes/graphs in OneNote easy? Would it be super-dorky to take a little Wacom tablet to class as well? (my guess is yes). Maybe that sort of thing would be best for going through notes at home?

Also, is OneNote the ULTIMATE note taker? I read about EverNote yesterday ... is that one any good?

Another thing: how about typing on a computer, doing drawings on your pad of paper, then referencing those drawings in your typed notes. Does anyone do that?

I guess I could always take notes with multi-colored pens like in ye olden dayes, but I'm a geek, I can't resist wondering about the computery options.
posted by redteam at 9:11 AM on July 7, 2005

If you do use a laptop to take notes, keep your online wanderings to a minimum. For one, it's distracting (not that I know firsthand, but from what others have said), but it can also make you look like a fool, considering everyone behind you will see what you're doing. I just say this because I've seen people on AIM, doing crossword puzzles online, etc. in lectures and it always irked me. But I'm sure you plan to be a diligent student and would never think of doing such a thing :)

Also...having the wi-fi access CAN be super helpful in certain situations. Like when the prof can't remember some random fact, you can google it and save the day! And if your grad program is more group-work oriented than lecture oriented (that's how mine was), laptops come in really handy.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 1:39 PM on July 7, 2005

redteam: all that is possible in OneNote but you'll need a Tablet PC or dorky Wacom to take advantage of the freehand drawing aspects of it. Never used EverNote so can't comment.

I'm shopping for a new Tablet at the moment; just found this which looks perfect for note-taking: Motion LS800. No built-in keyboard, very small form-factor.
posted by blag at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2005

If you decide to bring a computer with you, some thoughts:
  1. Studies have shown that the more similar people's studying environments are to their test environments, the better they tend to score. So if your tests are on the computer, use the computer. If they're on paper, at least use something like OneNote, if not going to paper altogether.
  2. If you go with a laptop or a tablet, go as light as you can. Think of the extra premium you'll pay for a lightweight PC as an investment in yourself; the dividends will be the money you'll save on chiropractor's office visits.
  3. I think all new laptops probably come with it now, but it should be said anyway: wireless internet is your friend and ally. Make absolutely sure your laptop has it.
Good luck, and way to go back to school! It's really inspiring for someone who's about to graduate college with no clue what he wants to do with his life.
posted by joshuaconner at 1:05 AM on July 8, 2005

Best answer: late to the party but...

At my school (where I am a grad student) a few people use laptops. Most of them, as far as I can tell, spend their time doing other things on the laptop than paying attention or taking notes. One (in a class I was TAing) would always either be programming (no programming in this class) or playing some MMORPG. Don't be these people, because no matter how subtle you think you are, it will be noticed.

Very few grad students in my dept use laptops in class; in fact, only one or two that I know of. I have the impression that they aren't using them particularly productively, either. Especially don't be these people as a grad student - your graduate career is deeply connected to your interpersonal relationships with your professors.

I use a personal wiki, but not ever in class. I just like paper better for taking notes on the spot. Don't forget that taking notes on paper was a skill that you had to learn, and so is taking notes on the computer, except that it's a different skill that you haven't yet learned. Depending on the intensity of your program, the first year of grad school may not be the time (though it's not going to get easier).

You will also find that the amount of note-taking (from papers, books etc.) outside of class is drastically greater as a grad student than as an undergrad, and increases as you progress. This is mainly what I use my wiki for. Sometimes I transfer notes from class into the wiki - I'd like to do this more, but I haven't had the patience yet. But mostly I use it for organizing my research. Even that I often work out to some extent on paper first, but I find the cross-referencing and searching ability of the wiki very useful.
posted by advil at 3:33 PM on July 8, 2005

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