Rethinking Class Notes with OneNote


Rather than being the source of all of the notes for each class, I'm having students contribute to a OneNote Class Notebook. Two students per class are responsible for making sure that the class warm-up, practice problems, content and discussions, and questions are all updated on a page within a notebook. Since the pages are all editable by all students, this will lead to a collaborative document that represents all of the work we will have done by the end of the year.

I had an interactive whiteboard in my various classrooms for eight years straight. Three years ago, I gave mine up for a number of reasons. In its place, I chose a projector, tablet, and stylus, which let me move around the room. The goal was the same - create electronic versions of the written work I (and students) did in class beyond the duration of a single class period.

Electronic class notes, at least in theory, solved a number of problems. Students that were absent didn't need to borrow notebooks from a friend to know what they missed. Students that might not be quick at writing down notes from the board could copy those notes later. This also served as a record of what actually transpired in class, which I have found useful for planning purposes later on the year, as well as in future years.

Unfortunately, students rarely take advantage of these capabilities. Students nowadays don't tend to copy notes from class that they miss since they are available otherwise - the benefit of muscle memory that comes from writing down the important parts is one of the obvious losses. Problems that get written down are not connected to each other because I don't necessarily do this in what I write in the notes. The handouts I make are small enough to be taped/glued into their notebooks, which means students shouldn't have to copy over the problems. When I tell them to do these problems in their notebooks, some students try to do them on the small sheet, even though there is limited space. Students do try the problems from the class on their own by looking at the class handout, which is important, but they don't tend to take the time to write down the definitions or concepts that they will need to remember for later. Much of this we develop as a class after doing problems, so the benefit of that social capital in the room does not pass to those that miss class.

I also admit there is an inconsistency in what I ask students to do with those notes. Students ask me to wait for them to copy solutions to problems during class before moving on. My response is to ask them to do that outside of class since I want to spend time during class doing problems, not copying. I see this as a reasonable goal, but given that students don't tend to correct their notes outside of class, I doubt that students actually do so after I suggest it.

I've also thought about looking into interactive notebooks, but am nudged away from them for two reasons. One is the initial time investment required. I understand the idea that once the notebooks have been created, they can be used in future periods or iterations of the class with minor tweaking. I've only taught the same course in a row a few times, however, and never with multiple sections. This has never seemed like a worthy investment in the quality of learning it enables.

The bigger reason - and the reason that wants me to get away from creating notebooks all together, not just interactive - is that interactive notebooks consist of me being the source of virtually everything students record in their notebook. Yes, they fill in the blanks and provide examples, but they can't move forward unless I provide them the structure. To some extent I provide that structure with anything I do in the classroom, but this seems to be a step backwards in helping my students understand how to structure learning on their own.

By the end of second semester last year, I pledged to come up with an alternative to the class notes I had been creating for students. I had sworn off Google Drive and Google Docs due to China blockage issues and a lack of a viable VPN solution or all of my students. I have seen a lot of creative use of student crowd-sourced resources that got away from a single source of teacher-created notes. When I first met Darren Kuropatwa a few years ago at the Learning 2.011 conference, he described creating a structure like this through class blogs. While we had a WordPress server at our school, I never liked the interface as a way to easily get the sort of interaction that I wanted about the class, so I didn't move forward on making it happen then, or for the past, um, four years.

When our school made the move to Office 365 last year, however, I found that OneNote, and specifically, their Class Notebooks option, made a pretty clear path toward what I pictured for this resource. I've based my redesign of how class notes fit in to my instruction through this structure.

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For those that don't know, a OneNote notebook can consist of multiple sections (which I'm labeling Unit 1, Unit 2, etc), and each section consists of multiple pages (which I'm labeling Day 1, Day 2, and so on.) In addition, the Class Notebook (which is specifically offered to school that adopt Office 365) offers three distinct sections:

  • A content library, in which teachers can read, edit, and view pages, and students can view, but not edit.
  • A collaboration space, in which both teachers and students have read/write/view access to pages and sections.
  • An individual section for each student, visible and editable by both the teacher and the individual student, but students can't view each other's individual sections.

Through either the browser or a native application, students get real time view and edit capability of any notebook that is shared with the class. This means we have the potential for a truly class authored resource for each group of students, which is ridiculously cool.

To be clear, we're been working on the roll out of some new computer policies at our school, so I've had to figure out what students do and don't have access to before creating expectations that can be assessed. Now that students have figured out how to get to the notebooks, here is my plan for students taking charge of the class notebook.

Each class will have two students selected to manage the day's notebook page. By the next class, the page for that day's class should contain:

  • Warm-Up and solutions
  • definitions and explanations of concepts discussed during class
  • 4 – 6 practice problems and solutions
  • class handouts
  • questions or ideas that we didn’t get to during class

Grading for this element of the course is binary (Meets/Does Not Meet Expectations) but is also ongoing throughout the semester, so I can give students feedback on their day's notes and ask for it to be updated/improved.

Since we've had a few days of class before students are getting control of the notebook, I've made the notes at the beginning so students can see what I'm looking for. Students have also suggested that they could add links to resources they find online that they find helpful, and I'm all for this. I'm sure that we will come up with more features as time goes by.

I'm just at the beginning of this, but the comments from students make it sound like they are, at least somewhat, into giving this a try. I know I'm going to be sharing things that the class puts together at the front of the room - that's why I have a projector and the resources to do so, and those will continue to be in the notes. I'm hoping that by giving students more ownership of this entity by having all of us create it together. This doesn't necessarily change how students are using their notebooks in class, but I think that might be something that happens as a direct consequence of shifting emphasis to an online notebook.

I'm giving this a try, and as with anything I try, I'll do my best to share how it develops here. I'm pretty excited to see what it becomes over time.

A New Year, A New Formula Sheet

I wrote earlier this year about my difficulties with equation reference sheets. Students fall into the habit of using them like a menu rather than a set of tools.

Yesterday I had the great experience of trying a revised approach. The idea is to rely more on memorization, but only so far as keeping close definitions that are crucial to understanding.

A student asked during a quiz for a formula for electric field. I said I wasn't going to provide one, so I pushed further to find out why this student needed it.

The student asked for the relationship between electric field, charge, and force. I provided this:

The student subsequently nodded and told me what went where. I then stepped away, keeping the post-it note with me.

This was an application of the definition of electric field, not Coulomb's law, and the student either knew this, or guessed. In either case, it was enough to enable the student to then solve the problem completely.

I don't know yet what this means, but it seems like a step in the right direction. I wonder if providing a reference sheet with random elements erased might be enough of a skeleton to encourage the students to know how to fill in the blanks, but wouldn't allow the sort of hunting that students often do in a problem solving situation.

It has been a nice start to the year, folks. Here's to a great school year for all of you.

2014-2015 Year in Review: Work & Life Balance

This is more of a comment on things I did outside of the classroom rather than in, but it was something that my wife and I made a focused effort to do during the second semester.

The idea was simple: buck the routine of the house (and classroom) during the week with something specific that didn't involve work. Make dinner with friends. Go for a walk to somewhere new in the neighborhood. Watch a movie. Work on a fun side project.

These scheduled, specific plans meant I had a reason to leave my classroom and end planning earlier than the usual, which often pushed well past 5:00 PM. If there was a need to do more before the next day, I'd take a look at it before going to bed. I took the time to ask myself whether the work left unfinished was actually going to make the learning better the next day. Sometimes it was, often it was not.

I realize now that Parkinson's Law is notoriously problematic for perfectionists like me:

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Parkinson's law is the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion....

There is always more tweaking that can be done. The law of diminishing returns (and importance) is a major reason not to do so, particularly in light of the restorative energy that comes from spending time with good people.

These reasons for wrapping up work and being more efficient also made a big difference in my use of planning time throughout the day. I prioritized much more effectively knowing that I had a limited time to complete planning for the next day.

One important comment here: specificity was crucial. I couldn't just say I wanted to finish early to have more free time at home. It made a big difference to be able to picture the end goal of these time limitations. The goal is having a specific activity to look forward to rather than just a negative space formed by the absence of work.

I will be deliberate about continuing this throughout the coming year. This is too important.