Pausing playback: training students to read and take notes in online classes

By miranda.prynne, 11 December, 2020
Reading and note-taking are vital to learning, but are too easily overlooked by remote students. Steven Mintz explains how you can boost students’ motivation to read and take notes during online classes
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This video will cover: 

00:58 How to encourage students to take notes when learning online 

02:26 Incentivising students to complete their course reading 

04:21 Making students accountable for their work 


I’m Steven Mintz from the University of Texas at Austin.

The shift to remote learning is throwing our students for a loop. Many find it extremely difficult to organise their time, avoid distractions and remain focused and engaged.

Online learning places a huge burden on students to manage their time. To  succeed in online classes, students need to be extremely self-disciplined; most aren’t.

According to one recent study, less than half of all online students bother to take notes, and roughly 70 per cent don’t complete the course reading.

So, what can we do to get online students to take notes and complete their reading?

Let’s start with note-taking. Taking notes is not simply about transcribing content. Note-taking keeps students actively engaged in their own learning. It helps students absorb, summarise, organise and process information.

But in online classes, many students fail to take notes because they believe they can always review the material online. That attitude is a mistake.

Note-taking is less about writing down information than encoding and organising information.

In a digital environment, we can transform note-taking by making it a collaborative process.

Using free tools like Google Docs, Google Keep and Google Jamboard, students can identify and summarise and organise a class session’s main ideas collaboratively.

They can also annotate the information collaboratively. Learning requires students to process information, and collaborative note-taking offers a way to make that process engaging and even fun.

Getting students to read is an even bigger challenge than getting them to take notes. Over two-thirds of students in face-to-face classes fail to do all of their assigned reading. Why not?

Because they don’t believe that the reading is essential, and they’re also convinced that their professor will summarise the reading in class.

So, what can we do to encourage our students to read? Let me offer five simple steps.

First, sell the reading. Motivate the students to read by explaining the reading’s value.

Step two, include some pre-reading activities in your class. Preview the reading, identify key concepts that the reading will address, pose questions that the reading will answer and teach students effective reading skills, such as reading from the outside in.

That is reading the introduction and conclusion first, so that they can understand the author’s argument.

Three, guide students’ reading. Provide students with a list of questions that they should ponder as they complete the reading.

Four, be realistic. Sometimes, “less is more” is good advice. Make sure that a reading assignment is relevant, and make sure that it is doable in the time that students have available.

Fifth and finally, make students accountable. It is a basic principle of higher education. If students aren’t accountable for an assignment, they won’t do it.

You can quiz students on the reading, but a more effective approach is to ask them to respond in writing to some aspect of the reading. For example, ask them to summarise the readings’ arguments in their own words, or ask them to comment on the readings’ themes.

Also, make sure you do something with the reading in class. Discuss it, dissect it, debate it. Digital tools like Perusall and Hypothesis, or even Google Docs, can make it easy for students to annotate class readings collaboratively.

In an online environment, neither note-taking nor reading needs to be a solitary activity.


This video was produced by Steven Mintz, history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Reading and note-taking are vital to learning, but are too easily overlooked by remote students. Steven Mintz explains how you can boost students’ motivation to read and take notes during online classes