Although alternative forms of participation are something I frequently think about, this post about collaborative note taking is specifically for the Pedagogy Project.
Two key things that I value as a teacher are accessibility and collaboration, and collaborative note taking is an assignment that works toward both of those goals. The idea is simple: each class, multiple students take notes and post them on the course website for others to access.
Why do it?
On the first day of a graduate-level Universal Design course that I took, the professor walked into the classroom, spun in a circle, and flicked the lights on and off a few times. Then she walked to the desk at the front of the room and began introducing herself and the course. After about 30 minutes, she asked us to write down what had happened so far in the class. I jotted some notes about the content that she had introduced relevant to the syllabus; others in the class commented on the actions of the instructor, focusing on her arguably eccentric behavior when she first entered the room. It was interesting to listen to the different accounts of how we had all experienced the same events—from the way we wrote the descriptions (narratively or as bulleted lists) to the things we observed (content that was delivered or observations made about the people and room). We had all been part of the same experience, but we had experienced it very differently.
It was an exercise that emphasized accounting for the multiple ways different people access the same content or environment—an introductory lesson in thinking about Universal Design. As I think more about how to make participation more accessible—that is, how to decenter the idea that participation can only be speaking in class—I find myself returning to this example.
At the beginning of each semester, I circulate a sign-up sheet and ask two people to sign up to take notes for each class period. I create a space on our course site where they can upload their notes. This is an example of the description I give them:
Everyone takes in and processes information differently. I may say one thing, and you all may hear something different based on your own understandings, interpretations, and beliefs/assumptions. For that reason, multiple people will sign up to take notes on each day of class. If it is your day to take notes, you will receive participation points for the day.
Class notes must be posted within 24 hours of class.
Students have two options for taking notes: they can either type and post them directly to the course website, or they can handwrite notes and upload a photo.
Once everyone has been responsible for class notes at least once, I make them optional and ask for volunteers.
So far, I have required this in 100, 200, and 300-level writing courses, although I think this could be useful for any type of course that emphasizes participation. It’s a great (low-stakes) way to get students comfortable writing in class and sharing that writing.
I’ve had students submit notes that ranged simply from bullet points of what I write on the chalkboard to rich narrative accounts of everything that occurred during class. In a writing class, this has great rhetorical and creative potential. When I introduce the requirement, I emphasize that students can take notes however they want as long as they think carefully about what someone absent from class would need to know about what happened that day. (Side note: this also doubles as a great resource to direct students to when they inevitably miss class and email you asking what they missed that day!)
The rhetorical benefits of this assignments are—for me—awesome yet unintended. When I first required it, I was really trying to imagine assignments and activities that are more accessible and universally designed. Note taking is a pretty common accommodation. Collaborative note taking addresses that specific need while also making it a shared responsibility (rather than focusing on the one student who requires it). It asks students to be responsible to each other by contributing to a shared resource. And ultimately, it reinforces the notion that accessible practices benefit all students.