Reflections on a Universally Designed Rotating Note-Taker Assignment
By Emily Gravett
Teaching disability and disability studies occurs in a wide variety of ways and contexts, as it should. While I teach specific courses (e.g., Religion & Disability) that are part of my institution’s Disability Studies Minor, I also try to teach disability in my other courses, in perhaps more subtle and implicit ways. I do not think that the only way to teach about disability is by specifically focusing an entire course on the topic. We can make a big impact and raise students’ awareness of disability through, for example, the authors and materials we assign (i.e., “cripping the curriculum”); through acknowledgements in class that name and surface disability; through noting, unpacking, and tackling ableism and its various manifestations; through universally designing our courses (and, importantly, explicitly mentioning that design, as well as its purpose, to students in the class); through the kinds of disability statements we include on our syllabi; through our assignments themselves. It is the latter that I would like to focus on here.
Along with extended time on tests, excused absences, etc., one of the most common “accommodation” requests at my institution is that of a note-taker. As I’ve written elsewhere (BLIND 2018a):
“Our very own Office of Disability Services (ODS) coordinates a massive note-taking accommodation program, with over 600 peers taking notes for nearly 1,000 courses each year. Hundreds of [BLINDED] students with disabilities request this service…. Ideally, each student would receive notes from two of their peers, yet Director of ODS [BLINDED] tells me there are always classes in which the call for note-takers goes unanswered.”
I have myself received many of these requests in the past—and feel the stress of trying to find note-takers. I can only imagine the stress that the individual student with the access plan feels as they await a pair of note-takers, especially if it takes a long time for other students to volunteer (which it often does). Note-taking, after all, is an important part of learning. For decades, we have known that the best way for students (and any of us, really) to capture and review material for later studying and long-term retention is to take our own notes (e.g., Kiewra 1989).
Inspired by a rotating note-taker “Quick Fix” offered in the journal College Teaching (Maier 2016), I created a rotating note-taker assignment for my upper-level Religion and Film course. This is how I presented the “Post class notes” assignment, worth 10% of their grade, in my syllabus:
Because we can all learn from each other, you should take notes not only when I am talking, writing, or projecting, but during discussion too. To try to reach a shared understanding about the important insights raised each day, and to create access for students who benefit from note-taking support, you will share your notes from class sessions at least 3 times over the course of the semester. Within 24 hours, you will type up your notes (if you wrote by hand), review your notes and fill in any gaps, and upload them into the folder whose link is provided on Canvas, along with your response to the question: what was the most important thing you thought we learned today? (To help us stay organized, it is important that you label your note files using a consistent format: MONTH/DAY – LAST NAME; example: 9/24 – BLIND.) You will receive full credit for detailed and timely notes. I recommend returning to them regularly. I may include questions on the quizzes and/or exams based upon them.
I had several reasons for the creation of this assignment. One is that “these upper-level courses are small and discussion-based and I always emphasize that students should be taking notes on what they hear—not only from me, but from their peers too. I rarely use presentation slides and I don’t come in to give a prepared lecture script, which I could share with students…. Note-taking, by my students, is a must” (BLIND 2018a, n.p.). The assignment helps to incentivize note-taking as a practice. (And it works, as I’ve shown elsewhere; see BLIND 2018b). Another reason I made the assignment was to create an additional opening in a course, otherwise not obviously related to disability, for a discussion about disability, access, exclusion, marginalization, universal design for learning (UDL), etc. Note that even on the syllabus’s description, I explicitly mention the purpose of the assignment is “to create access for students who benefit from note-taking support.” This written explanation provides one launching or entry point for me to have a conversation with students about disability. Finally, I wanted to create an assignment that would, relatedly, not require those students with note-taking in their access plans to have to even need to request those accommodations, because I had proactively created a universally designed learning environment in which it was unnecessary.
Of course, UDL does not just benefit one individual student who is experiencing a certain kind of barrier; universally designed syllabi, assignments, activities, etc. can benefit all sorts of students, just like curb cuts in a sidewalk benefit not only wheelchair users, but others, as well (see, for instance, Burgstahler 2015, Meyer et al. 2014, and Tobin and Behling 2018). So, I imagined that my rotating note-taker assignment would not only assist students who had note-taking as a part of their access plan, but also those who missed class (due to illness, family emergencies, etc.), those who were not native English speakers, those who were present in class but who wanted confirmation of key points and additional material to study, etc. I even imagined the notes benefiting me, as I could view them as a sort of “educative” check-in, where I could find out what students thought the main points of the day were—and be able to come back later to correct or amend those, if there were any serious misunderstandings.
The assignment, I’m happy to report, worked very well for these students in this class. Students initially signed up for their note-taking days by the deadline, they all took and posted their notes in a timely fashion, and they each received credit for having completed the assignment. I looked at those notes regularly and was impressed with the information they were able to capture. When there seemed to be mistakes or errors, which was actually rare, I was able to use class time to note and correct them. The students reported appreciating having the others’ notes to refer to while reviewing and studying for tests. Notably, I had no students request note-takers through ODS in my course that semester; it could have been that I had no students with a disability who needed that particular accommodation. Or it could have been that the rotating note-taker assignment meant that, even if there had been a student who had note-taking in their access plan, they wouldn’t have needed to disclose their disability and make the request of me because the assignment made it moot.
But this success is not what I want to highlight here. I certainly don’t have enough data (this was only one course with 17 students who had not been systematically asked, with, for instance, an IRB-approved survey, about their experiences with the assignment) to feel confident advising others to implement it. Here, instead, I want to write about the failure of this assignment.
We academics don’t do very well with humility, failure, and admission of wrongdoing (Resnick 2019). But one of the things I love best about UDL is its emphasis on process. As Dolmage (2017) and other disability studies experts have emphasized, UDL is iterative, it is a spirit toward growth and improvement, it is movement, it is never complete. One of the things that I have come to understand about teaching disability and teaching for disability is that, sometimes, when we think we’ve solved one problem, we inadvertently introduce another problem (or set of problems). I remember a colleague, formerly in ODS, who was so excited about how inclusively he had designed a program for a visual studies event; he thought he had made everything accessible for students who had visual impairments or were blind. Turns out, he ended up creating a space in which wheelchair users couldn’t easily move about, all due to the cords and other equipment he had arranged to remove a different barrier entirely!
I experienced something similar with this rotating note-taker assignment and I want to lay it bare for readers to consider and bear in mind, as they create their own assignments, projects, and activities in an effort to teach about and for disability. As I was doing a presentation on UDL for another context at my institution, and as I was reflecting upon this assignment to present as an example of UDL, it dawned on me that my rotating note-taker assignment, while designed to raise awareness about disability in a non-disability curriculum and to benefit all students, but especially those who needed note-takers, inadvertently created a barrier to successful course performance and completion for those very students. I was horrified! After all, if you’re a student who needs note-taking assistance for whatever reason, then would you not, potentially, find the mandatory completion (for 10% of your course grade!) of a note-taking assignment difficult, if not impossible?
I have not assigned rotating note-takers again in a course because I cannot yet think of a way to preempt or fully resolve this problem. It seems like a good assignment, but may it may create additional barriers for the very student population that I was trying to support. Some ideas have since occurred to me, as I was writing this reflection: for example, perhaps students could come to my office and talk through their impression of class that day and I could record notes for them, if note-taking is a barrier for them. (This would still require disclosure of their disability.) But even with this solution, I would need to think through the potential implications, in ways I did not with the initial rotating note-taker assignment. When we proliferate options, as UDL encourages us to do, we must acknowledge that we can sometimes also proliferate problems or barriers, for students and even for ourselves. While this may feel discouraging, I think it can be an opportunity to seek ideas, insights, and inspiration from elsewhere (colleagues, disability studies experts, students) and to continue to innovate and iterate in our teaching.
Burgstahler, S.E. (2015). Universal design in higher education: From principles to practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Dolmage, J.T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
[BLIND] (2018a.) The benefits of rotating note-takers. Teaching Toolbox. [BLIND] University.
[BLIND] (2018b.) Note-taking during discussion: Using a weekly reflection assignment to motivate students to learn from their peers. College Teaching.
Kiewra, K.A. (1989.) A review of note-taking: The encoding-storage paradigm and beyond. Educational Psychology Review 1(2): 147-172.
Maier, M.H. (2016.) Rotating note taker. College Teaching 64(3): 146.
Meyer, A., Rose, D.H., and Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST.
Resnick, B. (2019). Intellectual humility: The importance of knowing you might be wrong. Vox. January 4. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/1/4/17989224/intellectual-humility-explained-psychology-replication
Tobin, T.J. and Behling, K.T. (2018). Reach everyone, teach everyone: Universal design for learning in higher education. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press.
 Personal communication with the director of the Office of Disability Services (2018).