Collaborate, Rotate, Note-Take


Just last week I put together an assignment to have students collaboratively take notes in class. This assignment stems from advice I received from three colleagues, so its very beginnings were collaborative. I am humbled by the work my fellow teachers are doing at CUNY. Where do I begin?

What Do We Mean by “Participation”?

I slowly let technology into my classroom. When I first started teaching, anything but notebooks and pens were forbidden in my class. I wanted students to be present, engaged. Then I got into digital pedagogy, and now almost everything is digital. It has so far gone pretty well…but one day this semester, it seemed like most of my students were glued to their laptops. They weren’t engaged in the verbal discussion at all and I left the class feeling irritated. Disciplinary action–although I’ll admit it was my first inclination–was not the right reaction for me. I approached three colleagues for help and they offered me three new ways to think about participation.

Participation doesn’t have to be verbal. It’s ableist and narrow-minded to force students to participate verbally when there are so many other ways to participate.

When students are inclined to use technology, use it. Rather than taking notes separately, they all have the tools at their fingertips to collaborate and share.

The purpose of participation isn’t about speaking; it’s about offering something to respond to. Rather than just taking notes, ask students to deliberately engage their peers in an interesting conversation.

In the case of this class, all of my students have the privilege of owning their own laptops and we have a (relatively) reliable WiFi connection in our classroom. But in a computer lab or with a cart of rented laptops, you could have students without personal access to technology do this as well. Or, even better, after class do a class recap that tasks students with reviewing their notes again (if they have bandwidth at home) and immediately apply what they learned.

This level of participation and engagement is more responsible pedagogy where the point is to reinforce what students learned in class, solidify those nebulous ideas. At the graduate level, I learn so much from my colleagues. Why not engage students in learning from each other, too? A class discussion is a great place to start, and I ask students to come up with their own discussion questions and to Tweet them using the class hashtag. But collective note-taking takes this to the next level.


I use Google Drive for many things: I store my lesson plans there, and I have student folders in there (that they share with me) where I can read, grade, and comment on their assignments. Now, at the start of each class, I share a Google Doc with my students and ask them to collaboratively note-take there. The document is broken up into the five acts of The Duchess of Malfi, which we will cover over the course of five class periods. Each day/act is broken up into three parts: summary, analysis, and discussion. These are the three tasks that all three student teams will rotate through.


Group Tasks

Groups of 4-5 students will take turns working on these three tasks and updating the Class Notes Google Doc:

Summary: major and minor plot points; characters introduced and their roles/relationships in the play; important quotations and brief breakdown of their context/significance; important terms and their early modern meanings

Analysis: hypothesize (draw a conclusion about one observation); analyze (read between the lines and say something that sheds light on the topic); synthesize (draw connections to other readings, and/or offer resources, further reading)

Discussion: write 4-5 discussion questions (or choose the strongest 4-5 posted on Twitter) that give your peers something to think about and respond to (leading, maybe, to a thesis); add important questions and points made during class discussion (live or in a recap after class)

The summary part is pretty straightforward but it’ll get tricky once wax hands and references to werewolves come up. For analysis, I suggest students come up with more than one hypothesis/observation–maybe two students are assigned this task and two assigned to analysis. For discussion, I suggest students start out with something already prepared and then add to what they’ve got as the rest of the class jumps in.

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