More lessons learned when taking notes in a class environment


I’m still using OneNote 2007 to take notes on an ordinary differential equations class I downloaded from MIT.  As I discovered earlier this week, this is really a stress test of notetaking.  Advanced math classes like this are not the “typical” class most students take, and most of my notes are formulas, graphs and tables without much text.


For OneNote to be a help, I need a tablet.  Typing math equations would be horrible – I could look up the shortcut key for an integral symbol (∫ – by typing ALT+ 8747 using the numberpad) but this falls apart with line integrals.  Given time, I could teach myself MathML or a similar text based formula system (Sage from UW seems promising) and write an addin to lay out formulas better in OneNote but that’s not a reasonable solution for taking notes right now.


So I kept going with my pen and worked through some more classes.  Here’s what I learned during my second pass:

  1. There is no getting around practicing beforehand.  Think of an analogy in which I’m using paper and colored pencils or pens and a ruler/French Curve/template for notes.  Before I hit my desk, I better know where my pens are, if there is room, which pens have fat or thin tips, and (hopefully) can roughly match the colors the instructor is using.  I’ll need to lay the pens out beforehand and put them in a location in which I will not drop them to the floor.   Essentially, this is the same operation in OneNote.  I need to know where I have my Pen toolbar and the order I have my pens.  Same comment for the Drawing toolbar.  Then calibrate my pen for the tablet and I’m ready to practice quickly switching colors.

  2. I gave up on the drawing tools.  They are too cumbersome to use in a fast pace environment like a class.  It’s easier to draw a graph freehand.  That’s what the instructor is doing in class.

  3. I gave up on erasing after all.  Just scribble it out and keep going.

  4. Last week, Jonathon suggested printing my notes on paper.  I gave it a try.  They looked really good, and based on the output, I’m switching exclusively to thick pens.  They just look better when printed.

  5. I love not having to press Save (and dealing with the inevitable File Location and Name dialog).

  6. Even given my addin to support text based formulas, I would need to know what formulas to expect in class so I could learn the syntax of them in advance.  Now, if I knew what the instructor was going to teach next (and in this case, I do know, but only because I have had this class before), I would not need to take the class.  So I need to stick with the stylus entry.

  7. The surface of the screen is critically important.  The Gateway I have now has a smooth screen surface.  It gives a bright view, but provides very little “smooth friction” when writing on it.  The Lenovo I had provided a coarser screen surface (and better stylus) which made writing MUCH easier.  And I tried on a passive screen (like the HP tx1000z has) and it was terrible for notetaking.  This is too bad, as I really prefer the HP otherwise – I think of it more as a touch screen than a tablet, and from that point of view it is near perfect.

  8. Searching on math equations doesn’t seem useful.  Maybe when I get more class notes logged into OneNote, but not yet.

  9. I printed the class notes provided from MIT into subpages under my class lecture notes.  Searching those notes IS useful.  I definitely would recommend printing PDFs into OneNote and grouping them within a class section in a manner that makes sense to you.

  10. Strangely, a smaller screen works better for using a stylus.  The 14 inch Gateway screen is almost too large – I appreciate the extra drawing area, but having a smaller screen makes it less likely my hands are on it, smearing it while taking notes.


And something I would explore in a classroom which I can’t use right now:

  1. Audio/Video record the lecture.  I’d love to try the audio search capability in OneNote with a recorded lecture.  But using my webcam to record the sound and video from a recorded video defeats the purpose…


Comments, questions, criticisms and complaints?



Comments (12)

  1. Eric Verno says:

    Would upgrading your Stylus help at all?  I use the Stylus from Cross Pens.  It is a "Wacom Cross Stylus Pen".

    Here is the link from

  2. JohnGuin says:

    Hello Eric,

    I don’t know about the pen.  I’ll see if I can get one and check it out.

    And Michael: making holograms with OneNote is simply slick…


  3. Dave Hejde says:

    Excellent points about notetaking in an intensive environment.  I have used a Motion Computing LE-1600 for two years of college junior- and senior-level science classes.

    Most of my classes have extensive handouts that are available from an on-line site.  I download these before class and "print" them to my OneNote section for that class.  Then I select all and set picture as background.  This way, I can write all over them as the lecture proceeds.

    I use OneNote 2007 with the audio input provided from a matrix mic array built into the LE-1600 and find it excellent.  If I reach a point in my notes where I either didn’t catch what the lecturer said or didn’t undertstand it, I just insert a flag at that point in my notes and keep writing.  After class, I can just tap on the flagged paragraph and OneNote starts the audio playback a few seconds prior to when I wrote the paragraph.  This works great for enhancing the quality of my notes.  For some fast-paced classes, I play back the entire lecture’s audio after class and augment the written notes with important points I might have missed.  I don’t think it would be valuable to record video in class.  Perhaps in an art class or one where the lecturer throws up lots of images that you don’t already have.

    I love my tablet and OneNote in the educational environment!

  4. SmudgeGuard is wrist to little finger spandex "glove". This can eliminate smearing on the screen.

    Allows support and control for good penmanship and drawing too.

    Google for it at ~ $15.

    Kind of kinky in pink!

  5. RR says:

    Hi Joe,

    Thanks for sharing the great tip! I’ve been searching for something like that to stop the annoying smudges on my screen! What a great idea!

  6. bill breeze says:

    re. the smudging – i’m old school, i just apply a piece of scotch tape!

  7. JohnGuin says:

    Scotch tape – great idea!  I’ll try that…

  8. Tip for entering mathematical stuff without a tablet (or, as in my case, using a convertible as a laptop):

    Create a bunch of custom AutoCorrect shortcuts for the Unicode mathematical characters. I have _int as the integral sign, _dot for dot, _partial for the partial derivative, _alpha thru _omega providing the greek letters (and typing _ALPHA automatically does what you expect), etc. Use Character Map (charmap.exe) to hunt down the characters and copy them to the clipboard, then paste them into the AutoCorrect Options dialog box. Then, subscript and superscript fonts take care of the common cases for exponents, integral bounds, etc. (Yes, you can’t have a sub-subscript or a sub-superscript, but oh well.)

    For anyone who wants to avoid the trouble of entering all that crud, I can send you my autocorrect .ACL file. (Ahh, Microsoft, why couldn’t you just use a text file format that I could copy and paste from? 😛 )

    I actually gave up on taking mathematical notes with ink. I found superscripts and subscripts and fractions were to often broken up into separate lines or separate textboxes, and as soon as I tried to insert something, all hell broke loose and symbol fragments flew everywhere. How did you deal with that? Or is it better in 2k7? (I haven’t upgraded just yet.)


  9. -Cliff says:

    If you find writing on the glassy surface a bit offputting, you can buy felt tip pen nibs from Wacom…they add a little drag and feel really, really nice.

  10. JohnGuin says:

    Thanks for the tip.  I may try it, but the 14" screen on my Gateway tablet is actually a little large relative to my hands.  Makes it difficult to use as a writing surface.  Maybe the nibs will help.