Using (and testing) OneNote in a classroom

I was wondering aloud the other day about how students use OneNote in a class environment.  I’ve heard a little bit of feedback through our newsgroup and from a few other websites like  Nothing compares to first hand use, though, so I decided to try it out myself in a classroom setting.

 I went to the MIT open courseware site ( and downloaded a complete course on Ordinary Differential Equations.  I figured this would be sufficient to keep me from trying to type and force me to use my pen.  It did.

 Here are the lessons I (re)learned:

1. Instructors do not pause for me to take notes.  Admittedly, since I had recorded video, I could go back any time to get the information I missed.  Since I was trying to simulate a classroom setting, though, I did not pause and just kept the video playing. 
2. Practice switching pen colors!  I enabled the pens toolbar, but spent a few precious minutes of class time trying to move it to a spot on screen in which it felt comfortable for me to quickly change pen colors.  After that was settled, it worked for me much better (I put it on the left hand side of the screen).
3. The control to add more space at the bottom is small – very small.  My pen is fairly well calibrated, but it’s still hard to click the control.  Needs to be bigger and more discoverable.
4. I always need to add more space.
5. Handwriting recognition does not work well for formulas.
6. Erasing takes too long in class.  This is the same thing I experienced when using a pencil and paper when I went to school, so it may be me more than anything else.
7. You still need to go back after class and clean up your notes.
8. Almost all ODEs can’t be solved <g>.

Now to apply this to testing.  First, I’ll keep in mind for scenario testing the needs of the student now that I understand them better.  Having an option to perform a needed task is the first step (like inserting extra space at the bottom of the page).   Insert | Extra Writing Space as a menu item is the first step, but clicking it, then resizing the page takes too much time in a classroom environment.  The control at the bottom right is much faster, but is too small, so I can recommend enlarging it. 

Second, I’ll need to think about erasing.  The Lenovo I had had an “eraser” at the end of the stylus.  Flip it upside down, and the eraser worked (albeit slowly).  The Gateway doesn’t have that functionality, so I have to click the eraser toolbar icon.  This is too slow for classroom use – I’ll make my scenarios weighted to simply scribbling over mistakes instead of erasing them in class.

Third, I wanted to use the drawing tools for making graphs.  It was quicker just to draw the XY axis myself.  I’ll call this a personal preference, but still make sure my student scenarios include cases for students who want to use the tools for drawing graphs.

Questions, comments, concerns and criticisms always welcome,

Comments (19)

  1. Jonathan says:

    Kudos for testing OneNote in the classroom!  Next, try to print out one lecture’s worth of notes.  Some have been told in other forums (by someone from MS or a MS MVP) that "Insert Page Break" options didn’t fit into essence of OneNote.  After spending 5-10 minutes to get one "Auto" page in OneNote to print well (but adding more space to "bump" things to a new page), one would think otherwise.  While I would love to keep everything electronic/digital, I still have to print out and turn-in homework, as well as print to PDF to send notes to friends.

  2. JohnGuin says:

    Good call.  I’ll print them out and see what they look like.

    Still, though, I’m convinced the best thing to do is re-write the notes after class.  It helps learning and in my case, the typed notes I take would be infinitely more legible than my handwritten notes.

    I’ll let you know what it looks like,


  3. anirudh saraf says:

    a few things I sorely miss :

    1) your points about graphs is true. It takes too long to get it done properly. what would be ideal would be a sort of shift button to draw straight lines in tablet button. that way you could do it freehand and still have your lines straight.

    2) insert page break for printing is also sorely missed. Specially when you print your homework out, only to find that the last line is split between the two pages.

    3) A nice feature would be to have sort of pop up stick it notes. Lots of time you need to go back and scribble a side note/ personal comment while you are reviewing. it would be cool if you can have a sort of collapsible sticky note there which shows only when you click on it as opposed to creating a hyperlinked new page…

    thats just a few of the features I think would be really useful while I was taking notes/reviewing them. One note rocks !!!

  4. Terris Cooper says:

    One note is good in some cases in the classroom yet I find it almost imposable to use in classes where graphing is part of the notes or flow charts are part of the notes it is better to use word over OneNote  It does not make since to me that the same type of options in word are not in OneNote like flow charts.  

  5. anirudh_22 says:

    and speaking of graphs I think the ability to atleast draw dotted lines is really essential… I don’t this can be done in one-note, can it?

  6. JohnGuin says:

    Some misc comments:

    For Anirudh, #2: Yep, I agree.  For this reason (and many others, including using a printer which costs up to $140 per printout to use) I always do a Print Preview first.  I’m not saying page breaks aren’t a good idea, only that print previews pay for themselves in the long run.

    #1 is a good suggestion.  #3 seems out of place – just type where you want amplifying info… Maybe I don’t understand the comment.

    Terris: Math in general is a tough problem.  Consider 2 users: the teacher, who is willing to invest time into getting a great looking page of math symbols and equations, drawings, graphs, tables and such.  Then the student, who is trying to rapidly jot notes in a form that may or may not be pretty so long as it is useful to the student.  Currently, Word (and maybe Visio) are designed for the teacher.  OneNote, as I have found, works for the student, with paper and pencil being a strong competitor.  

    Dotted lines: good idea.  I’ve been manually using my pen to draw dashes, which works pretty well, especially considering the curves ODEs normally fit.

    Lastly, in general, I’m pushing the limits of OneNote to take notes in a relatively specialized math class.  Another tester (Irina) pointed out that higher level math classes are ultimately nothing but equations.  She’s correct, of course, and equations are tough enough to display correctly when you have plenty of time to lay out the formula (in Word, Maple, Mathmatica, etc…) much less in a scribbled drawing on a computer screen.

    Still, I’ll keep plugging away.  Expect some more "lessons learned."  And if anyone has any tips to help, please share!


  7. anirudh_22 says:


    want I meant by the sticky note thingy is that a lot of the times I dont want to mess up my class notes by scribbling all over the place(typed notes look cleaner, but handwritten ones is a different story I guess). I could try  outlining(which has the collapse feature) but its really difficult to do that in tablet mode. If I could have a collapsible sticky note, i just scribble extra info and then it collapses ( something i don’t want to see everytime I look at my notes). Its really helpful while reviewing stuff for test etc as I can make notes on top of my notes. Another use could be as flashcard sort of thing, where the answers are on the collapsible note so they arn’t visible by default. Its sort of like having a footnote feature, where you don’t have to actually go anywhere to find it. This is one of the features I sorely miss while taking notes.

    Does it sort of make sense?…

  8. Eric Verno says:

    Good Evening,

    I am a 6th grade teacher in a rather large school district in Dallastown, Pennsylvania.  I teach on a 4 person team and am about to venture on a pilot program with OneNote 2007.  Now, it is different than what you have written about here, we are testing it with the 4 Team Teachers, Administration, Guidance Staff, Support Teachers, etc.  We are working on coordinating our information, IEP information, and planning data.

    I am hoping this is the 1st step, on the way to having the kids use OneNote in my Portable Lab.  I have 30 notebook computers in my room plus a SMART Board.

    I am very fortunate with this situation!  I would love any and all feedback/networking connections as possible!


    Eric Verno

    6th Grade Educator

    Dallastown Middle School

    Dallastown, PA  17313

  9. bill says:

    i would really (really) like to recommend you upgrade the drawing tools – absolute straight/diagonal/~degree lines would be wonderful. Presently i have to erase sides of a rectangle to get a straight/diagonal line

  10. JohnGuin says:

    Thanks for the feedback about drawing tools.  I’ll pass it on to the designers.


  11. ericthebikeman says:

    I formerly used the eraser in class until sometime last year. The scribble out feature seems to work faster, especially if I’m a klutz and drop the pen. My new HP almost requires it since they made the eraser flat greatly reducing the accuracy of the eraser.

  12. JohnGuin says:

    I’m itching for an HP tablet – I just can’t find an excuse to buy one…  I like the scratch out better than the eraser just because it is slightly faster to complete the action.

    Oh, and here is a video of the school that got me thinking about this:


  13. Kathy Smith says:

    How is your One Note project progressing?  

  14. JohnGuin says:

    Hi Kathy,

    Well, I entered a few design suggestion based on my use and we’re seeing what we can do.  As usual, no promises since we don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver.  

    Most of the problems I encountered started to go away after practice.  Using a tablet is still not as simple to use to enter data as paper, but once you get used to it, is usable and much more powerful.

    I hope I answered your question.  If not, let me know.


  15. Over in the newsgroups a few days ago there was this post . In it, Dave asks about using OneNote in a

  16. A few months ago I "took" a class in ordinary differential equations by enrolling MIT’s open courseware

  17. Ricardo Martinez says:

    I would suggest an idea for drawing tools. Whenever you draw a line. It should give you the following options (While mouse is pressed)

    – Magnetic guides to corners and to the middle of the target(in order to keep symmetry)(this can be turned on/off)

    – Dotted lines (this is a must!)

    – It would be awesome to add the new paint tools (win 7) to OneNote.

    Thats my 2 cents.

  18. John says:

    Good ideas – I’ll pass them on.