What’s your first impression of this image?

When I shared it on Facebook recently, some pretty passionate responses were sparked. A number of teachers thought that students taking notes with phone and tablet cameras was a useful strategy, but they were far outnumbered by dissenters. Some commenters viewed it as evidence of bad teaching, kids’ laziness, and/or the dumbing down of the next generation. Most people who objected pointed out that writing things down helps students to memorize and creates new neural pathways: they view note taking as an integral part of the lesson, not busywork.

Here’s my take it.

The image is meant to be humorous. I’m not making the assumption that any teacher actually allows students to sit around passively and listen to a lecture, snap a photo of a slide at the end, and then walk out the door. Who’s to say students hadn’t taken detailed notes throughout the lesson and then used their phones to capture the assignment so they could be sure they had the details correct? What if the teacher’s lesson required students’ total focus and note taking would have interfered not only with their comprehension, but with the pacing of the lesson? After all, writing things down takes some kids a looong time and causes them to fall so far behind the teacher that they miss the whole lesson.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that we need to teach kids note taking skills, but it’s my perspective that taking photos can actually enhance that process. Our intent is to prepare students to be successful outside of school  as well as in it. We need to teach real world skills. And in the real world, people use their phones to make life easier. I’ve been in plenty of staff meetings and business meetings in which people took pictures of slides and even handouts. I use my phone camera to take pictures of product info when shopping instead of writing down model numbers and prices, to capture recipes I see in magazines, and to have access to maps and directions that I would have otherwise had to hand-copy or print out. Camera phones are one of the best and simplest tools we have today, and each year, more and more of our students have access to them. Why not harness that available technology and use it to their advantage?

The real question I think we should be answering is this: how do we teach students to take notes in the 21st century? It might be instinctual for kids to whip out a device and take a snapshot, but I’m willing to bet that most of them don’t have a system for finding and using those images for studying later on. Similarly, most of them aren’t savvy with writing things down and using their notes to help them study.

So, part of our job is to help our students think critically about the pros of and cons of written note taking and pictures/video, choose when to each each method, and learn how to reference and organize all of their notes so they can be of use later on. Yes, that will take some additional time out of our instructional day. But think about how many hours we’ll be gaining by teaching kids to make the note taking process more efficient and meaningful.

What’s your perspective? How do you teach students to take notes in the 21st century?



  1. Karen

    I love the idea of students taking pictures. I teach 6th grade, and my classes are less lecture than discussion. I would rather have the students engaged in the lesson than busy taking notes. Of course I want them to learn how to identify important information, but I don’t think taking notes is necessarily the most effective way to learn.

    I have a classroom blog, and I have recently been snapping pictures of class notes to load to my blog. The students and parents LOVE it! I like it because absent students can keep up with class through the blog. The picture definitely illustrates how note taking has changed since the time I was in school, but everyone keeps saying that the times have changed. We can’t have it both ways. Either education is changing and we need to accept that, or we want to stick with the traditional route.

    • Matt

      Get them to use the Cam Scanner app. It is free and they can save the picture as a pdf to annotate later.

  2. Beth Bo.

    Interesting that you should post this. When I went to the International Reading Association Conference in San Antonia this year, all the teacher’s were taking pics of the slides just like this.

    • jodi

      It is exactly the same way in my education classes. Our professor puts up the assignments on a power point and we all take out our phones and take a picture

    • Margaret C

      I agree. I take my camera to all CPD events now – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially to visual learners!

  3. Jenny

    Ironically, before I erased my whiteboards at the end of the day, I snapped a photo of the student generated argumentative notes we created in my grade four class. I’m typing them up for student reference for tomorrow’s class. Posting notes electronically to a class website is great too. Sometimes it is hard for students to focus on both thinking and notetaking for fear they can’t keep up.

  4. Rebecca Kidder

    I co-teach 11th grade US History at a school where all the kid are issued iPads. We do have students take photo copies of notes, we also have students who type their notes, and we still have the tried and true, die-hard paper fans. My co-teacher and I don’t care which method they use as long as they use them to reference later. And we are actively teaching them how to take notes from a lecture; trying to prepare them for the next chapter. We found out with our first test this year that as juniors they didn’t know how to take notes and effectively use them, so we’ve been taking our time and re teaching that skill.

  5. Sydnee

    I’m a Teacher Candidate with York University in Toronto and in my placement right now I’m in a new school that is tech savvy and not all my students write down their notes. Some will use their phone but they don’t take photos of it, they open up “Notes” on their iPhones and actually type it out. I feel that they are still retaining some of the added information they would gain from writing the notes out. One of my Mentor Teachers doesn’t encourage note taking because he has an online teacher website and has all the power points, assignments, etc. posted online for the students. If they wish to take notes they can do that but many are auditory learners and prefer to just listen to him talk. I am not accustomed to that style (not taking any notes) so it’s a bit of an adjustment for me learning my best teaching style but I’m encouraged with where technology is going to take classrooms over the next few years but a bit cautious.

  6. Angus

    Let’s see. I can take a top down approach, and be the “sage on the stage”, the keeper of all knowledge. I can have students write down what I think the most important things are so they can memorize them for the test. That test will include only some of the important facts, and those students who are to stupid or lazy to take good notes or who memorize the wrong things for that test will not be able to take notes at a higher level of “education”. Only those who do exactly as I say, and do things as I expect them to can become successful members of society.
    I can teach.

  7. Linda Kardamis

    This is a great question! And one I’ll need to give more thought to – although our school doesn’t allow cell phones in class at this point.
    We are at such an exciting (although sometimes intimidating) time in education – the Information Age is so new and the transitions are happening so quickly – and we are pioneering a whole new era of education……The old Industrial Age conventions need to be examined and a lot of them can be eliminated or improved. But at the same time we do need to be careful to keep the core values and truths that are unchanging.

  8. Rochelle Mills

    I completely agree that many students, especially those in jr. high or even high school don’t have the follow through when it comes to taking notes via pictures. Sure, I use my camera all the time at PD sessions but I recognize that after the session, I need to re-read, summarize & make use of the information that I collected. I am not sure that it is a skill that can always be taught. Sometimes, it is a matter of maturity & authentic learning. As a professional, I understand the need to follow up with my learning. Many students to do have that motivation, desire or sense of urgency.

  9. Anus

    I would argue that the students who don’t have “the follow through” to review their notes on their phone likely don’t have the follow through to follow up with what they have written down.. Plus, photos can be backed up “in the cloud”. Binders and loose leaf paper can’t.

    • Karen

      I completely agree with the idea that photos can be backed up where binders and loose leaf paper cannot. And, to be honest, I don’t think many of my students ever go back and look at their notes that I’ve made them take, anyway. I have found much more success with having the class notes on my blog. Many of my students will go on-line to look through the examples, thought they won’t do the same with their written notes. This is an interesting time with technology and education.

  10. Julie

    I’m wondering about developmental stages and how that comes into play here. Do you think there is merit in having young children (K – 4) concentrate only on written notes, gradually giving them an understanding of possible ways to collect information, while they are still developing literacy skills? Then they could move to the more complex varieties in middle school/high school. Would a child who never experienced the work it took to write out notes, fully grasp the benefit of the phone method?

  11. Jenny

    90% of the “notes” I want my fifth graders to take I hand to them to glue in their notebooks. Then I spend a lot more time teaching them how to use those notes to do something in my class. This allows me to focus on application, not copying things down. It also means that the remaining 10% of the time, my kids take very detailed notes because they understand how important they are.

  12. Cathie Elliott

    My son has dysgraphia. This is great for students who have certain learning disabilities

  13. Chanel

    I know this is an older thread, however, you may wish to have a look at http://www.loft1media.com. Loft1 will be announcing early access to an app that will capture whiteboard notes without the use of a special stylus or “smart” board. All you need is a smartphone – and the notes will be accessible in real-time. Students and businesses will have the ability to edit and search handwritten whiteboard content – using just an ordinary whiteboard and marker.

  14. Sarah

    I wish that there was more support for these opinions from the primary literature.

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