Northwestern University explores the value of note-taking technology

Jim Stachowiak

Director of Assistive Technology and Assistant Director of Accessible NU


170 students at Northwestern were receiving a peer notetaker, costing $100 per class

In 2016, Jim Stachowiak, Director of Assistive Technology and Assistant Director of Accessible NU, asked: do we know if peer notetakers are truly value for money for our students?

60% of students that requested a note-taking accommodation received a peer notetaker at the time. However, they weren’t always getting quality notes in return.


Northwestern University overview:

  • 21,500 students
  • 1153 with disabilities
  • 207 with note-taking accommodations
  • 3 quarters with optional summer quarter
  • 1 central hub for accommodation coordination

Why wasn’t the peer notetaking scheme working?

Recruiting was difficultNotes are personalNotetakers were late
In competitive subjects, like Law, students didn’t want to share their notes and observations. If a match wasn’t found, students could be without notes for some time.Students found their peer’s notes difficult to decipher or lacking focus on an area they didn’t understand.If notes weren’t uploaded within 24 hours, students couldn’t rely on peer notes to start engaging with course content and assignments.

The conclusion: peer notetakers were a budget drain with limited student gain.


Finding value with note-taking technology

Northwestern needed an alternative solution to peer notetakers, so Jim set out to pilot two note-taking technologies throughout 2016/2017. Both utilized audio recordings of lectures and classes to allow students to take notetaking at their own pace and return to information as and when they needed.

“Using technology, the students control the note-taking process from the beginning”

Jim Stachowiak

Reductions in requests for peer notetakers

Introducing note taking technology saw requests for peer notetakers fall dramatically.


Students with peer notes vs. technology

The data showed that Freshmen were the most open to adopting note taking technology, which suggests requests for peer notetakers will continue to fall.


Comparing Technology

 1. Livescribe Echo Smartpen

  • 2GB pen and special dotted paper notebook
  • Extra headset microphone needed for better sound quality
  • Playback by reviewing notes manually and tapping on section
  • 1 hour training time

Cost: $20,250 for 10 pens

 2. Sonocent Audio Notetaker

  • Software on students’ devices with additional mobile app
  • Additional Loan License Manager allows administrators to coordinate accommodations
  • Mulitmedia platform helping students to organize and review notes easily
  • 1 hour training time

Cost: $1000 for 10 licences for a year, interchangeable between students

“I got a 63% on my first Psychology exam. Shortly after I began using Sonocent in class, which allowed me to pay more attention and easily review pieces of lecture I needed to better understand. Using Sonocent helped me improve to a 97% on my second Psychology exam.”

Freshman with ADHD

Jim’s choice

While some students preferred to handwrite their notes, overall Jim and his students found better value from Sonocent Audio Notetaker. Four key features stood out:

Asset 5
  1. Audio is displayed as bars so students can easily capture and annotate remarks made in class.
  2. A customizable Color Key enabled students to highlight key points and ideas useful for their studies.
  3. Students could slow down the recording if they found the speed or accent of the lecturer difficult to understand.
  4. The multimedia interface also appealed to different learning styles.

“With the Loan License Manager it is easier to keep track of the Sonocent loan licences than it is with the smartpens. We could see if students were using Sonocent or not.”

Jim Stachowiak

Explore the Potential of Assistive Tech

Find out more about Northwestern’s experience by watching the webinar:

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