Integrate Digital Focused Note-Taking Strategies and Tools

Empower your students with digital strategies and tools for each of the five parts of the focused note-taking process.

Grades 3-12 25 min Resource by:
Listen to this article

When note-taking is engaging and sustained, it can be an effective way to increase student retention. This is especially true during remote learning, where students will often need to guide their own learning with little to no teacher presence. In this article, we’ll explore strategies and tools that can be integrated into each stage of the AVID Focused Note-Taking Process. Teachers can mix, match, and customize these options for use in their own classrooms, or they can use them as inspiration for their own ideas for engaging students in a virtual note-taking process.

Step 1: Taking Notes – Create the notes.

Students have more note-taking options than ever before. As we go through the note-taking process, consider what it might look like in your grade level and with your students. Decide on which options you will provide your students. What is the purpose and objective for note-taking? Once a purpose is established, teachers and students can select the best format for their notes. There is not one way that is better than another. Students should learn to use a variety of formats for different purposes. Some examples of formats include two- and three-column notes, interactive notebooks, mind maps, graphic organizers, and even sketchnoting.

Step 1:Taking Notes


The objective of Step 1 is to create the notes. Teachers and students should perform the following tasks:

  • Determine the purpose of the notes and create an essential question.
  • Select a note-taking format and digital tool.
  • Set up the notes, name them, and save them, so they are organized, secure, accessible, and shareable.
  • Take notes on an information source (lecture, book, website, article, video, etc.).
  • Select, paraphrase, and arrange the information in a manner that meets the note-taking objective.

Strategies and Tools:

Students have the option to use many formats to take notes. There are many note-taking strategies and digital tools available to support students. Students can write notes using a stylus or digital pen, take pictures of paper notes, include digital copies of content, or even record audio notes.

Two-Or Three- Column Notes:

  • Strategy: Students can use two- or three-column notes to help identify and pull out important information in a structured and organized way. For example, when using two-column notes, students might put QuestionsTerm, or Main Ideas in the left-hand column and AnswersDefinition, or Details in the right-hand column. When using three-column notes, there could be an additional column to the right titled Examples.
  • Tools: Two- and three-column notes can be created using Microsoft OneNoteMicrosoft WordGoogle Docs, fillable PDFs, or Pages. Consider creating or using one of the templates below for sharing with students.

Interactive Notebooks:

 Mind Maps:

  • Strategy: Consider using mind maps for very clear visual connections. Mind maps can visualize connections between words, ideas, questions, information, and new thoughts. Mind maps build off of a central idea or concept.
  • Tools: There are many ways to create digital mind maps. Tools like MindMeister and Popplet are user-friendly and make mind mapping very easy for students. Mind maps can also be created or drawn using the draw feature in Microsoft OneNote or using Google Drawings.

Graphic Organizers:

  • Strategy: There are many types of, as well as many ways to use, graphic organizers with students. Graphic organizers can help students visually organize their ideas, thoughts, questions, connections, and much more. You should think about what students will or should be focusing on when taking notes and pick your graphic organizer based on the desired outcome.
  • Tools: There are many tools that can be used to create and fill in graphic organizers. For younger students, you might think of creating interactive graphic organizers using Google SlidesMicrosoft PowerPoint, or SeesawGoogle Drawings can be used to create and share many types of graphic organizers.

Interactive Venn diagram to use in online teaching


Audio Notes:

  • Strategy: With the use of technology, notes no longer have to be written down. Students can quickly record their thinking and save it right in their notes. Audio note-taking can be used exclusively, or as an extension in collaboration with other forms of note-taking. Audio notes can also be great for collaborative note-taking. Students can very quickly share their audio notes with one another.
  • Tools: Many tools already have the ability to record audio. In both Microsoft OneNote and Microsoft PowerPoint, users click on the “Insert” tab and then “Record Audio” (which is under “Audio” in PowerPoint). A Chrome extension, like Talk&Comment  (Tip Sheet), can be used to record audio notes.

Step 2: Processing the Notes – Think about the notes.

If students only write or type their notes, very little learning will happen. The power of note-taking comes from the interaction with the notes. During this step, students process their notes. They review, sort, reorganize, add/subtract, and evaluate the importance of the notes they have taken. This process is more engaging than the simple act of “taking notes,” and it requires a much higher level of cognitive processing.

Processing the Notes

One added benefit of having notes in a digital format is the ability to search those notes. This can allow the students to make connections they might otherwise miss. Using Control+F (PC) or Command+F (Mac) can give students a quick and efficient way to search notes. Listed below are some additional strategies and tools that can be used during the this step.


The objective of Step 2 is to review and process the notes that were initially taken. Specifically, students should perform the following tasks:

  • Revise notes by underlining, highlighting, circling, chunking, questioning, adding, and deleting.
  • Identify, select, sort, organize, and classify main ideas and details.
  • Evaluate the relative importance of information and ideas in the notes.
  • Share notes digitally with other students for peer review.

Strategies and Tools:

Students can use a combination of these strategies to digitally mark up their notes. Many of these strategies are similar to the strategies used during the Critical Reading and Digital Marking of Text.

Toolbar for students to use while processing notes

Underline, Bold, and Italicize

  • Strategy: Use these text formatting tools to call out different types of information. Each format can have a different meaning (for example, underline weblinks, bold key terms, italicize ideas to research).
  • Tools: The easiest option is to use the text editing tools built into the note-taking platform.


  • Strategy: Consider what information you wish to call out in your notes and highlight those points (for example, main ideas, supporting content, key questions). Each color can have a different meaning, so consider creating a key to help you remember what each color represents.
  • Tools: Use the highlighters built into the note-taking platform. Google Docs also has a very useful add-on called the Highlight Tool that lets you customize highlighter sets and export your highlights.

Sample of highlighting notes in Google Docs


Circle Content:

  • Strategy: Consider what information you wish to call out in your notes and circle those points. You might consider calling attention to new vocabulary, key ideas, or important dates.
  • Tools: Use the drawing tools built into programs like Kami (Tip Sheet) or DocHub (for PDFs), Microsoft OneNote, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Students could also do their annotations on paper, and then submit a photo of their work. Many note-taking apps for tablets, such as Notability, integrate drawing tools directly into the app, as well, and the touch screens make drawing very accessible. Word processing applications, such as Google Docs or Microsoft Word, are not as conducive to circling content. When using these platforms, you might consider some of the other annotating tools available.

Chunk Content:

  • Strategy: Reorganize notes, so they are grouped meaningfully. The act of putting information into chunks helps to process content and make mental sense of it.
  • Tools: Cut, copy, and paste content to different parts of the document using built-in toolbars or keyboard shortcuts. Consider adding headings to label related chunks of content.


  • Strategy: Asking questions about the content in your notes is one of the most powerful ways to process the information. Be sure to continue revisiting these questions as you learn more.
  • Tools: Use the comment tools built into programs or install the Talk&Comment (Tip Sheet) Chrome extension to record voice notes and questions.

Sample of commenting on notes in Google Docs



  • Strategy: Your notes don’t need to be finished. They can be a work in progress, where you continually add new ideas or remove content that you no longer feel is necessary. Modifying the notes throughout the learning process keeps you engaged in the content and increases retention.
  • Tools: Use the built-in toolbar or keyboard shortcuts to cut/copy/paste ideas. Some programs have version history tools that allow you to go back to previous drafts of your notes if needed. This can be helpful if you want to revisit the mental journey you have taken to get to the current version of your notes.

Add Images:

  • Strategy: Use images and emojis to annotate your notes. Consider putting question marks or confused emoji symbols by the ideas you wish to revisit later or add an image that further explains a concept you wrote about in your notes. A picture can be very powerful, and these can be pasted into most note-taking formats.
  • Tools: Find images online and copy/paste them into your notes. In some cases, you can even draw your own illustrations and insert them into your notes. If you plan to reuse the same images throughout the process, consider pasting them at the top or bottom of your document for easy copy/paste access. The “Explore” tool integrated into Google products can be used to conduct a quick web search or to find images online or in your Google Drive.

Peer Review:

  • Strategy: It is beneficial to get feedback from others as you process your notes. Having another perspective checks your understanding of the material with a fresh set of eyes. Because the process is collaborative, the exchange of ideas can also lead to deeper conversations about the information as well as new ways to interpret it. The previous strategies on this list can all be used during peer review.
  • Tools: Adjust share settings on collaborative documents to allow for either peer editing or suggesting rights. This will allow a peer reviewer to add annotations, comments, or suggestions to your notes. A real-time chat or video meeting during this review can further facilitate conversations around the material.

Step 3: Connecting Thinking – Think beyond the notes.

Academic content and notes don’t really come to life until you connect them with other concepts. These connections bring meaning to your notes and give them relevance. For instance, geometry becomes much more meaningful when you are constructing a deck or building a house. Making connections also helps us remember better. Our brains want to make sense out of new concepts, and this often happens when we organize the new information by connecting it to what we already know. We categorize and apply it to other known constructs, giving it meaning in context of what we already know.

Step 3 - Connecting Thinking


The objective of Step 3 is to analyze your notes and make connections that deepen your understanding of the content. Specifically, students should think beyond their notes in the following ways:

  • Analyze the notes using inquiry to make connections and deepen content knowledge by asking questions.
  • Add your own thinking to the notes to create a better understanding of the content and concepts.
  • Identify gaps in your understanding or sections that still seem confusing.
  • Connect the content and concepts to what you already know.

Strategies and Tools:

Students can use a variety of strategies and tools to connect their notes to prior learning, new ideas, or other resources.

Tools to use while connecting notes to other learning


Ask Questions:

  • Strategy: One of the most powerful strategies for making connections is to ask questions. Our questions both connect and extend our learning and require us to look at the content in new ways. They also give us purpose for reviewing our notes.
  • Tools: Use built-in comment tools to add questions in the margin of documents. You can also type the questions right into your notes. If you do this, consider color-coding them, so they are easier to identify in your note-taking document.

Add Links:

  • Strategy: The Internet is rich with content that can extend or clarify your notes. Consider linking out to key webpages, online videos, or other resources that can help you better understand your topic.
  • Tools: You can insert hyperlinks to other online content in several ways. Typically, you’ll highlight the text you want to link, and then click the chain icon on your application’s toolbar. If you don’t see a chain icon, you can often insert hyperlinks by highlighting text, and then finding an “Insert” menu and choosing the “Hyperlink” option. Oftentimes, this option can be found by right-clicking on a highlighted word or phrase, as well. You can also paste links into comments posted into the margin of your notes.

Insert Images:

  • Strategy: If your notes connect to an illustration, map, or other image, consider adding those to your notes. This will help you make the mental connection and better visualize the content.
  • Tools: Images can be found on nearly any website or through a browser search. Some programs have features built into their menus to search for and insert images without leaving the platform. For instance, Google Docs has an integrated “Explore” tool in their programs that calls up a quick web search engine.

Sample of Google Docs Explore tool for adding images to notes

Connect With Others:

  • Strategy: Having discussions about content is very powerful and can help you make connections that you might otherwise not make on your own. During asynchronous learning, you may need to be creative in finding ways to connect with others.
  • Tools: Consider ways to connect virtually with others. Some options include email, text messages, phone calls, Twitter posts, video meetings, collaborative documents, and discussion boards.

Step 4: Summarizing and Reflecting on Learning – Think about the notes as a whole.

To develop and deepen understanding, students need to summarize and reflect on the notes as a whole. Students can summarize and reflect in many ways, individually and/or collaboratively, and with many different tools. Summaries no longer need to be a written paragraph; they could be a quick video, audio recording, infographic, and much more. Technology allows students to create and present summaries in new and transformative ways.

Step 4 - Summarizing and Reflecting


The objective of Step 4 is to think about the notes as a whole. Students can do this in a couple of ways:

  • Pull together the most important parts of your notes and your thinking about them to craft a summary that captures the meaning and importance of the content and addresses the essential question.
  • Reflect on how the learning helps you meet the note-taking objective.

Strategies and Tools:

There are several strategies and tools that students can use when summarizing and reflection on the learning.

Independent Summary and Reflection:

  • Strategy: Students can create individual summaries. Even when created individually, students can still share their summaries in a digital space so that other students can see, review, and respond to them.
  • Tools: Students could use any of the tools described in Step 1 to create a summary in their preferred or assigned note-taking style. Summaries could be shared and commented on in a learning management system, in a class Padlet, or in a shared Flip (Tips). If students would like to create summaries using mediums other than written text, they might try some of the following:
    • Create a summary video or podcast using a tool like WeVideo.
    • Program a summary using Scratch.
    • Create an app or game that summarizes learning using MIT App Inventor.

Collaborative Summary:

  • Strategy: Students can work in pairs or small groups to create a summary that includes diverse perspectives. Collaborative summaries can be created and shared in many ways.
  • Tools: Pairs or groups could create a digital summary in a shared document in Microsoft WordMicrosoft OneNoteMicrosoft PowerPointGoogle DocsGoogle SlidesBook Creator, or any other collaborative digital space.  If students would like to create summaries using mediums other than written text, they might try some of the following:
    • Collaboratively create a summary video or podcast using a tool like WeVideo.
    • Collaboratively program a summary using Scratch.
    • Collaboratively create an app or game that shares a summary with others using MIT App Inventor.

Step 5: Applying Learning – Use the notes.

The whole point of taking notes is to learn something and then be able to apply the learning. Learning can be applied for the intended purpose, but more importantly, learning is transferable and able to be applied to a new situation.

Step 5 - Applying Learning


The objective of Step 5 is to use the notes and apply what has been learned. Teachers and students should be thinking about both large- and small-scale opportunities to accomplish the following:

  • Use your notes as a resource or as a learning tool.
  • Evaluate your notes and identify gaps, parts that are confusing, and the quality of the information.
  • Use your notes to prepare for a project, presentation, test, essay, etc.

Strategies and Tools:

There are an infinite number of ways that students can creatively communicate and apply their learning. Below are several popular strategies and tools that students can use when summarizing and reflecting on their learning.

Design a Website:

  • Strategy: Students can apply what they have learned and create a website to demonstrate and share their learning with others.
  • Tools: Students can use educational website builders, such as  Google Sites or Weebly.

Create a Blog/Blog Post:

  • Strategy: Students can use blogs as a platform to apply and communicate their understanding to a global audience and receive feedback from that audience. Blogs are a type of online journal that are frequently updated. Students could be taking focused notes throughout the year and using a blog to apply their learning. Students could create different blog posts on many topics or ideas.
  • Tools: Any website builder, such as Google Sites or Weebly, can be used to create a blog. Blog posts can also be made on different social media platforms, such as Twitter.

Design a Game, App, or Simulation:

Create a Video or Podcast:

  • Strategy: YouTube is the second-most-viewed website in the world, only after Google. Creating and consuming information through videos and podcasts is becoming more and more popular. Students can apply their learning and create videos or podcasts to share with their classmates, or even a global community.
  • ToolsWeVideo is a web-based video editing tool that can be used to create both videos and podcasts.