Home Content Areas Note-Taking and Outlining: Five Digital Helpers

Note-Taking and Outlining: Five Digital Helpers

by Miguel Guhlin
notebook with pencil

Wish you had an easy way to annotate websites or research articles and then share them with others? Do you need to guide high school and/or college students in the area of note-taking? If so, you’ve come to the right place. In this blog entry, I’ll feature a few digital tools that should come in handy for this purpose. At the end, I will share my recommendations.

Before we do that, let’s revisit the importance of note-taking and annotating content.

A Note-Taking Strategy That Works

Many educators are now familiar with the research that the act of handwriting your notes gets you results. Consider this quote from NPR’s interview with research study authors Daniel M. Oppenheimer and Pam A. Mueller. The authors sought to test how handwritten notes affect learning compared to notes taken using a computer or digital device.

“The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies had to be more selective. You can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

The researchers noted the two types of note-taking and defined them in this way:

  • Generative: Summarizing, paraphrasing, concept-mapping characterize this approach.
  • Nongenerative: Verbatim copying describes this approach.

As you might imagine, the generative approach has a greater impact on learning. According to another study, researchers found that handwritten notes also engage your senses. As a result, the act of note-taking makes your brain more active. Learning improves because of your brain’s activity (Source).

Hattie’s Mindset

As you might imagine, John Hattie’s meta-analysis of note-taking research reveals something, too. That is, that note-taking has an effect size of .51, which accelerates student growth in one year. Remember that standard growth has an effect size of .40, so anything greater than .40 is beneficial.

While handwritten notes do much, it is the acts they force us to engage in that actually yield results. Those acts take place during generative note-taking and include:

As you can see, each of these activities has the potential to speed up student growth in one year. Two other strategies are also useful here. The first is outlining and summarizing (effect size of .66). Defined below, this .66 effect size strategy can be quite effective (edited for blog):

Identifying the main ideas and rendering them in one’s own words. The core skill is being able to distinguish between  main ideas and supporting ideas. Or, main ideas and examples

The second is spaced vs mass practice (effect size of .65) . Notes, outlines, and summaries allows us to remember information over time. We can refer to this strategy:

Students are better able to commit information to memory. This happens when they study that information in spaced (or distributed) intervals. Studying “massed” interval(s) does not work as well as spaced.

Studying information over shorter sessions in a longer period of time yields benefits. Given the value of notes, outlines, and summaries, we can revisit content again and again. Providing this information up front to students would help them.

Change That Adds Value

A change that adds value is one definition for “innovation.” In this case, the technology tools shown below are innovations. They not only ease post note-taking, but address the other strategies that work.

Technology enhances outlining and summarizing, making it easy to outline and annotate. The ability to revisit content is helpful here, as is how we interact with that content together.

Let’s explore some digital tools that can provide better support to students’ efforts with strategies that work.

Five Digital Tools

You may be familiar with some of these tools already or be exploring them for the first time. My goal in sharing them is that you do so with the strategies that work in mind. Share these with your students. I address age appropriateness in the descriptions.


Tool #1: Diigo

Diigo.com is a social bookmarking tool. While the social aspect of learning is important, Diigo does more. It lets you create digital outlines, bookmarks, and highlight websites. You can get a Chrome/Firefox extension, too.


Diigo makes it easy to annotate and add comments to web pages. You can share your annotations/comments with others and can also do the following:

  • Highlight critical features of text (essential text or text to NOT read)
  • Ask students to define words, terms, or concepts in their own words/language
  • Provide definitions of difficult/new terms
  • Mark up online text with comments, observations, and corrections
  • Add bookmarks for the students to interact with
  • Use the highlighting and sticky notes like a word processor’s Track Changes feature

I first started using Diigo in 2008. There’s a lot to like in Diigo, even if “social bookmarking” has fallen by the wayside. You can see that tools that work, like outlining and summarizing, endure.

Tool #2: Hypothes.is

“Visible, active, and social.” That’s how the no-cost Hypothes.is tool describes itself. Hypothes.is makes it possible for students to “write in the margins” and annotate online text. Even more important, it makes that work social if needed.

Like Diigo, it offers both private and public commenting/annotation options and includes a variety of online resources/videos for those who want to get started:

Are you a Canvas LMS user? How about moodle, Sakai, Schoology, or Blackboard? Or D2L’s Brightspace? If so, you may be happy to learn that Hypothes.is integrates with all of those. You need only add the app to your learning management system (LMS) of choice. There are also resource guides for students and teachers.

Tool #3: Mendeley

Aimed at higher education, Mendeley allows you to annotate what you read. Some of its features include:

  • Add your thoughts on documents in your own library, even from mobile devices
  • Share documents with groups of colleagues and annotate them together
  • Import paper and other documents from your device, existing libraries, or websites
  • Automatic capture of author, title ,and publisher information
  • Have all your annotations and library backed up to the cloud

Mendeley offers “cite as you write” plugins. That means that if you use Microsoft Word or LibreOffice, Mendeley has you covered and supports more than 8,000 citation styles. Although a research tool, you are able to engage in shared annotation like Diigo and Hypothes.is. And, unlike Diigo, but like Hypothes.is, it is no cost.

Tool #4: WeavaTools

WeavaTools has a variety of features at varying costs. It offers some basic citation styles, but nothing like Mendeley. With WeavaTools, you can highlight text, make annotations, clip images, and organize your clips. The free version includes some simple export options like Word, Excel, text, and CSV. The premium version has a monthly cost.

Tool #5: Zotero

Zotero offers collection, organization, citation, and research-sharing options. Although a no-cost service, you can choose to upgrade your storage. This allows you to save everything you have on the computer version of Zotero to the cloud. Zotero works on a variety of platforms. It is more of a citation and research sharing tool. This makes it useful to college students. Some might consider it too complex for high school students, unless advanced.

Using the Five Digital Helpers

If you’re looking for tools to assist you in outlining and summarizing, then these may meet your needs. My recommendation is to take a hard look at Diigo.com and Hypothes.is for use in high school classrooms. Mendeley is great for advanced high school and college students.

Updated 02/09/2021: Added an infographic.

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