Creating Community II: Class Notes

As promised in my last post on the subject, here is another way to create community in your online or hybrid course: collaborative note-taking.

There is some empirical evidence that collaborative note-taking benefits student learning, but rather than repeat the details, I’ll refer you to this 2015 study by Harold Orndorff. [Update: Brielle Harbin, assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy shared her work — here and here — with me after reading today’s post.] Collaborative notes might also help resolve my perennial problem of students not taking notes during face-to-face classes. So, having decided that this change might be worth making, here is a synopsis of my thought process so far:

Step 1: Choose a platform

While many online collaboration platforms exist — Padlet, Slack, Microsoft Teams, to name a few — I wanted a tool that both I and my students are already familiar with, so I chose Google Docs.

Step 2: Create a dedicated Google account

I am a heavy user of Google Drive and Gmail. I want to keep student-generated material completely separate from all my other files, so I created a second Google account. Which Google promptly locked because of “suspicious activity.” I then had to complete a security verification process. I haven’t had this problem again (yet).

Step 3: Connect my new Google account to my university LMS account

My university uses Instructure’s Canvas as its LMS. For one of my fall courses, students will be using Google Sheets in addition to Docs (more about that in a future post) — which suggests using Google Drive to make all of Drive’s products available to students in one shot. Canvas’s official documentation says instructors can select Google Drive, rather than just Google Docs, in Canvas’s “collaborations” tool. Yet Google Drive doesn’t appear as an option for me in the relevant Canvas drop-down menu. According to a response from my university’s IT staff, Google Drive can be selected by authorizing the Canvas Google App. So I followed instructions for that, and got this error message:

So I’ll be sticking with Google Docs as the collaboration option from within Canvas.

Step 4: Decide on the size of note-taking groups

I could have an entire class write notes in a single Google Doc. This would ensure that the students who don’t take notes in the physical classroom see how it’s done from their more competent peers. But an entire class of thirty students editing a document in real-time might be too confusing, and it might lead to many free riders. Splitting the class into, for example, five distinct note-taking groups might be better, despite the increased chance of a dysfunctional group that lacks students with good note-taking skills.

Step 5: Decide whether group membership will be static or rotating

Keeping group membership the same for the whole semester could lead to more bonding between students, but rotating students between groups lessens the chance of that any one of them suffers from being in a dysfunctional group for the entire semester. However, the former is far easier for me in terms of set-up and monitoring.

Step 6: Decide whether notes are graded

As mentioned in prior posts, I have a visceral aversion to grading students’ notes. Assigning individual grades to a collaborative task like this is yet another drain on my time — I would need to review each Doc’s revision history to see which student contributed what and when. More importantly, it places me in the role of trying to fairly assess what for many people is a very individualistic practice. In my opinion, the more prescriptive I make the process — “follow this exact format or you’ll be penalized” — the less effective it becomes at instilling productive habits. However, it’s also been my experience that students simply won’t do anything that isn’t graded.

An acquaintance suggested a possible solution: put students into note-taking groups of 5-6 students each (which, for my fall undergraduate courses, means 5-6 groups per course). Students rotate to a different group every two or three weeks. I grade the quality of each group’s notes at the end of each cycle using a simple metric — something like “detailed,” “adequate,” and “needs improvement.” All members of a group get the same grade. I share the best set of notes with the entire class as a high-quality example.

By the end of the semester, a) students have collaborated with all of their classmates (community), b) they have seen the work of skilled note-takers (peer-to-peer modeling of best practices), and c) the students who consistently perform well might be rewarded with a total note-taking grade that is higher than the grade earned by students who don’t contribute (possibly solving the free rider problem).

This system’s major drawback on my end is that I would need to create separate groups and skim each group’s notes on every cycle. In other words, not just one Google Doc for each of five groups, but five Docs for every cycle. Seven two-week cycles means thirty-five different Docs — 1.1., 1.2, 1.3 . . . 7.3, 7.4, 7.5 — with students sorted into a different group and to different Docs for each cycle. Not the most complicated process in the world, but an additional time-suck for me, especially given that there will probably be at least one student every cycle for whom something “doesn’t work.”