Refocus: Note-Taking

What is current practice?

A typical approach to the provision note-taking as an accommodation is to have students ask someone in the class to assist them by sharing notes. If students are unable to find someone on their own, they are encouraged to give the course instructor an announcement to read to the class asking a classmate to volunteer to assist with note-taking. Note-takers are typically not paid or given a token amount as a “thank you” for helping out.

View Examples

Sample 1: Notetaking Guidelines

Note-taking is an integral part of the learning process. However, some students may be unable to take notes in class. If writing notes in class is a barrier because of your disability, you may be eligible to have note-taking as an accommodation.

Arranging for notetaking as an accommodation:

Once you have met with a disability specialist and have been determined eligible for this accommodation, follow these procedures carefully:

  • Ask a classmate directly to make copies of notes to share with you.
    If you feel uncomfortable asking someone directly, ask your instructor to make an announcement requesting a volunteer who is willing to share his or her notes with you.
  • Go by the disability service office and get a copy of the note-taking announcement.
  • Ask the instructor to read the announcement at the beginning of two class periods.
  • Meet the note-taker after class and discuss how you will get a copy of his/her notes.
  • Options include:
    • Photocopying at the disability service office
    • Asking the student to email you a scanned or electronic copy of the notes
    • Using carbon (NCR) paper, make two copies of the notes immediately. (Ask a disability specialist if you’d like to use NCR paper.)
  • Make sure to thank your note-taker and ask him or her to register with the disability service office to get a letter of volunteer service for providing assistance to you.
Your responsibilities:

If you are using notes from a classmate, make sure you meet your obligations:

  • Be in class each day. The note-taker is not required to share notes if you do not attend class.
  • Let the note-taker know how the notes are working for you. Inform the disability service office immediately if your notes are ineffective.
  • Don’t share the note-taker’s notes with anyone else. This is a special accommodation and not all students are allowed to benefit from it.
Note-taking Announcement

Please assist ___________ in locating a classmate who would be willing to share notes with this student. Make the following announcement at the beginning of TWO CONSECUTIVE class periods:

A volunteer is needed for a student with a disability in this class. If you consider yourself a good note-taker and are willing to share a copy with a student with a disability, please meet me and the student in the front of the room right after class ends today. The disability service office will formally recognize your volunteer service at the end of the semester. Thank you.

(Please do NOT include the student’s name as part of the announcement.)

Note-Taker’s Role
  • Attend class on a regular basis and take comprehensive, legible notes.
  • Decide how you will share your notes with the student with a disability:
    • Email notes.
    • Use carbonless copy paper. The student can bring NCR paper so you can share notes immediately after class.
    • Make copies at the disability service office.
  • Share notes with student at least weekly.
  • Register with the disability service office by completing the form as soon as you can. The disability service office will send you a letter to thank you for assisting another student.
  • Ask the student if the notes are working well.
  • Don’t tell anyone for whom you are taking notes. Students have a right to privacy and how their personal information is shared.
  • Let the disability service office know if you have questions.

What are the implicit messages?

  • Disabled students don’t have basic academic skills. They cannot take notes. This is an individual problem, not a possible concern for numerous students or representative of an ineffective pedagogy.
  • The barriers to learning that a student describes should not be trusted. The disability service office must verify eligibility for the service and legitimize it to the course instructor.
  • Disabled students are dependent on the charity of their classmates and cannot be achieve academically on their own.
  • The time, effort and awkwardness required of disabled students to coordinate note-taking (likely over 40 times during an academic career) are justified because the student is getting an advantage.
  • Having a disabled student in class is a burden to both the instructor and other students.
  • Note-taking is the best (or only) way to capture what is happening in the course.
  • Disability is special and requires a special response, including strict confidentiality.

How might this be different?

An alternate approach locates the problem within the course design, rather than within the student, while responding to the realities that the kinds of course design which create this barrier will likely continue to exist for years to come. This approach would also reduce the burden that is placed upon the student to the greatest degree possible.

View Examples

Sample 1: Acquisition of Lecture Content

A common practice in college and university courses is for instructors to deliver content verbally through a traditional lecture format. This information is often delivered only in this format and is available for later review only if the student captures that content in some manner. Ideally, this content would also be provided in a less transient format by the course instructor. The absence of such an alternative places the responsibility upon students to find an effective way to capture that content. Taking handwritten notes has been the traditional approach to resolving this problem. Other students may record the lecture and summarize the content after class for their later review. The use of laptops for taking notes has more recently emerged as an option. Finally there are other technologies which combine the audio recording with the act of note-taking, allowing students to fill in content they may have missed the first time without listening to the entire lecture again. All of these methods are ways of accommodating the traditional design which is based on the idea that learning is compromised when students do not "engage actively" during class by writing notes. While active engagement with course content is clearly correlated with performance, there is no clear evidence that this active engagement has to occur during the lecture itself or that note-taking represents engagement for all students.

In the event that the course design does not include the provision of salient points of the lecture in another format, an accommodation will need to be established which responds to this design. The course instructor will receive an email from the disability service office notifying him/her that there is a student for whom the absence of prepared lecture notes in a course presents a barrier.

The course instructor has the following options:

  • Place the notes in the learning management system (course shell) for all students or for the student for whom the barrier is created.
  • Provide notes via email to all students or to the individual student.
  • Arrange for a student note-taker for the class and posts those notes, share them via email, or facilitate the process to get the notes copied in a format that works for the student.
  • Consider other options for sharing the content and check with the disability service office to see if the approach effectively removes the barrier.
Sample 2: Acquisition of Lecture Content
[Some disability service providers may not be comfortable moving immediately to the first model. We provide this second example to this complex problem as a step in the right direction, recognizing that it is still problematic in some ways.]

A common practice in college and university courses is for instructors to deliver content verbally through a traditional lecture format. This information is often delivered only in this format and is available for later review only if the student captures that content in some manner. Ideally, this content would also be provided in a less transient format by the course instructor. The absence of such an alternative places the responsibility upon students to find an effective way to capture that content. Taking handwritten notes has been the traditional approach to resolving this problem. Other students may record the lecture and summarize the content after class for their later review. The use of laptops for taking notes has more recently emerged as an option. Finally there are other technologies which combine the audio recording with the act of note-taking, allowing students to fill in content they may have missed the first time without listening to the entire lecture again. All of these methods are ways of accommodating the traditional design which is based on the idea that learning would be compromised if students do not actively engage with the material during the time of the lecture. While active engagement with course content is clearly correlated with performance, there is no clear evidence that this active engagement has to occur during the lecture itself.

In the event that the course design does not include the provision of salient points of the lecture in another format, an accommodation will need to be made to respond to this design limitation.

When a student for whom this design presents a barrier enrolls in a given course, this will trigger a notice to the disability service office. The notice will also include the names and email addresses of the students in this course who have GPAs of 3.0 or better. The disability service office staff will then contact these students to seek a volunteer. The volunteer will take notes via a laptop and share the notes with the students by placing those notes in a drop-box that the student(s) can access.

What is the potential impact of this change?

  • The student is less burdened with the responsibility of working out arrangements to identify the note-taker, get notes, and supervise the notetaker.
  • Notes are more likely to be effective since students with higher GPAs are targeted and/or the instructor is overseeing the process.
  • The institution is responsible, namely the disability resource office, to solve the problem.
  • The problem is located with the course design and the designer (i.e. course instructor).
  • It avoids the charity approach to solving the problem. The volunteer is helping the course instructor, not the disability service office or disabled students.
  • It challenges the conventional approaches to both teaching and to accommodation provision.