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The Best Note Taking Apps / Programs For College Students

Amidst the whirlwind of lectures, assignments, and exams, staying organized and efficient is key to success. While traditional pen-and-paper methods have their merits, the digital age has ushered in a new era of note-taking efficiency through apps and programs. These tools offer a multitude of benefits that can significantly enhance students' learning experiences and academic achievements.

Differences Between Note Taking Expectations in High School and College

In high school, your student is guided by their classroom teacher who provides the subject content and identifies main ideas and key points. Students who need a topic explained in more detail can ask the teacher to slow down or repeat information. When preparing for tests, most high school teachers will provide a study guide or play a review game in class such as Kahoot to point students in the right direction for studying.

However, in college, professors are the responsible for delivering content to students but it is up to the student to identify which parts of the lecture are important and should be written down in their notes. It is up to the student to keep up with the pace of a lecture and write notes while the professor is talking. Lastly, most professors do not provide study guides or only provide general guidance such as ‘The test will cover everything in chapters 1-6.’ College students need to take notes in class and use those notes effectively to study for exams.

Considerations When Choosing a Note Taking Technology

There are a variety of apps and hardware available to assist with notetaking. But before you run out and buy the newest gadget, there are many considerations to keep in mind:

  • Does your student prefer to handwrite their notes or type?

  • Does your student have a disability that will affect their choice of note taking app?

  • Is the student’s class virtual (asynchronous / synchronous), lecture based, project based etc? The format of their college classes can influence the type of technology that is best suited for that format.

Examples of Note Taking Hardware

One tool used by college students is an iPad / Tablet with a stylus pen. Students can use the stylus to draw their notes or use the iPad with an external keyboard for students who prefer to type. There are various sizes of IPads and tablets available making them a portable and lightweight option for students to add to their backpack. The iPad allows students to take notes and upload them to a cloud storage such as Google Drive eliminating papers and notebook pages that can get lost or ripped.

Livescribe Smart Pens are a notetaking tool that allows students to hand write their notes with the added feature of syncing a student’s handwritten notes to a lecture recording. The Livescribe Pen must be used in conjunction with the Livescribe notebook. The student’s notes will be converted to computer text and saved onto iCloud, Dropbox, etc. 

Rocketbook is an inexpensive option for students who want to handwrite their notes using a notebook and pen but want the added feature of uploading the notes to the cloud. Students like that the notebook pages feel and write just like a regular notebook. The Frixon pens come in a variety of colors and can be wiped off the paper after 15 seconds to let he ink dry. Students also  like that they can purchase a notebook with multiple sections for different classes. Another Rocketbook product, CloudCards, allows students to create flashcards from their handwritten notes and can create a digital quiz to improve study skills. Win win!

Examples of Note Taking Software

Two popular note taking software used by our students are Microsoft OneNote and GoodNotes. Microsoft OneNote is free and has a lesser known feature - it can audio record notes and offers a transcription option. It allows students to collaborate on documents similar to Google Docs. Documents can be organized in a traditional ‘notebook’ organization style with sections and pages. Students can also include images and audio in their notes. If your student’s college uses Microsoft Office suite, this product will seamlessly integrate with their new college email address and MS Office products (email, OneDrive, etc.).

Another popular note taking software is GoodNotes. Used by students particularly in the STEM majors, GoodNotes can be used on an iPad with a stylus. Students like that GoodNotes has excellent handwriting recognition and includes drawing tools for illustrations and diagrams. It also allows students to upload and annotate PDFs. This is really important for those professors who upload PDFs and ask students to actively read or annotate then submit their annotations for a grade. Lastly, GoodNotes has a flashcard feature that incorporates spaced repetition. This is helpful in studying because GoodNotes will randomly show flashcards and when a student demonstrates that they know a term, the software will move that flashcard to the “back of the pile” and show flashcard terms that the student doesn’t know more often. GoodNotes is great for visual learners who like the options of graph paper, lined paper or dotted paper and want to customize their writing color, font, and paper background. 

Examples of Lecture Recording Apps

Becoming the most popular category of note taking technology are artificial intelligence based apps such as Glean and Otter. Glean allows students to audio record a lecture using their device’s microphone. The audio recording is then converted into a text transcription. Students can incorporate slides and images into their notes as well.

Some colleges and universities have purchased licenses for Glean and have the app available for any student to use (not just students with disabilities). To find out if your student’s college provides licenses to note taking technology, you should search on their college’s website for the Accessibility Office (most assistive technology is coordinated by this office).

Otter is similar to Glean in its audio recording capability. However, Otter transcribes the audio recording in real-time allowing students to highlight or make comments on the text transcription as the lecture is happening. Students can use the microphone on their device to record and when the recording is finished Otter has an added function of using AI tools to create a summary of the recording and even create multiple choice quiz

questions to test student’s comprehension.

Today’s note-taking hardware, software and apps provide unparalleled organization and accessibility to college lectures. With digital platforms, students can effortlessly categorize and store their notes by subject, topic, or date.

These tools can eliminate the struggle of frantically writing down notes while students are trying to listen and comprehend a lecture at the same time.

Note taking tools can enhance comprehension and retention by catering to various learning styles and reinforcing key concepts through visual and auditory aids. Similar to traditional pen and paper, these tools enable students to highlight important passages, add comments, and create study guides directly within their notes, facilitating active engagement with course materials.

For students with reading and writing disabilities, note-taking apps offer adaptive learning features that cater to individual learning preferences and needs. Many platforms incorporate features such as spaced repetition algorithms and handwriting recognition, which optimize retention and reinforce learning over time. By tailoring the learning experience to each student's unique requirements, these apps maximize academic performance and promote long-term knowledge retention.

In conclusion, note-taking apps and programs are a must-have for today’s college students seeking to excel academically. These digital tools offer a variety of benefits that empower students to take control of their learning. By leveraging the power of technology, students can develop note-taking skills that are tailored to their individual learning needs allowing them to listen, comprehend and demonstrate their learning in college.

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