Using Evernote to Encourage and Monitor Student Research
Contributor: Steve Marsden
Affiliation: Stephen F. Austin State University
Email: marsdensj at sfasu.edu
Released: 4 January 2017
Published: Spring 2017 (Issue 21.2)
Evernote is one of many potentially collaborative content collection and organization tools that have been evaluated for classroom use. It is an online platform used for note-taking, organizing, freewriting, collecting sources, and archiving digital materials, which makes it great to consider using in the research-writing process in classrooms. Jason T. Abbitt (2009), in describing similar online collection tools, noted how students could collect, classify, tag, and evaluate sources. He also showed that students who used social bookmarking were much more apt to be able to “recall and list resources related to . . . specific course objectives” (p. 95). Studies of Evernote itself in academic contexts have primarily focused on its use as a note-taking tool (Scepman, Rodway, Beattie, & Lambert, 2012; Kerr, Schmeichel, & Janis, 2015), though Richard Beach (2012) has talked about using the tool to create a shared digital media commons, and Troy Hicks (2014) and Jennifer Carey (2013) have discussed employing Evernote for student research at the secondary level. Eileen McNally (2014) wrote about the uses for educators in their personal and professional tasks.
My pedagogical use of Evernote grew from a desire to increase student competencies in information literacy. Encouraging high quality student research and helping students see research as a reflexive, self-motivated, flexible, and efficient process is quite challenging, particularly as traditional assignments that encourage and monitor high-quality student research do not always produce strong results. Standard research assignments I had used in a variety of English studies classes seemed particularly inadequate for projects requiring nontraditional sources and search methods.
When informally discussing traditional research essay assignments with colleagues, it doesn't take long for the conversation to turn to problems that we all have with assigning process-based research assignments in ways that allow us to keep track of and guide students more directly through the messy research process. Assigning process work such as annotated bibliographies and research proposals can be useful but doesn't always offer teachers time to interject and guide students as they are forming research questions, theses, and finding research materials that will support their work.
I wanted to find a tool that would increase student engagement with the research process earlier in the semester than traditional assignments, enable better and earlier instructor feedback, allow the instructor more access to the student’s research method, and replace as far as possible outmoded process work with something more modern. I considered several options. I had previously worked with shared Google Docs for collaboration and tracking of student writing, but it had only manual capture of Web sources, something I found vital. Microsoft OneNote, a comparable product, had not yet been rolled out and publicized universally on our campus during my implementation semester, and as many of my students did not have access to the full Microsoft Office suite on their devices, I decided to choose Evernote. I was familiar with its basic functions from my own use. It had (and still has) more seamless web-clipping, it was free in its basic version, and access did not require a continuing subscription. Furthermore, it was not resource-intensive; ad-intrusion was minimal; and it worked well across the devices my students typically used for research.
I incorporated the Evernote note-taking and organization suite of cross-platform apps in hopes that it would get my students to think of research as a recursive process and provide a way for students to keep their research organized across multiple devices while making it easier for them to capture nontraditional sources and to share their research collaboratively, making a class into a community of researchers. Since Evernote allows instructors to track student research in real time, I also hoped that it would allow me to coach or intervene in the research process in a more timely manner and make spot-checking student research for evaluation and marking more practical and efficient.
Using Evernote Applications
Evernote is a popular note-taking and information-organization application that works across a number of devices and platforms. It is available as a desktop application which synchronizes and stores notes on a local drive, but it is also accessible via the Web from all popular browsers and from Android and Apple tablets and smartphones. Perhaps most usefully for source gathering, a browser plugin, Evernote Web Clipper, allows the capture of webpage text, images, and links in several formats and with a variety of options:
- Article, which eliminates sidebars, advertisements, and comments, and saves current content to the cloud;
- Simplified Article, which reformats text and applies margins to read easily;
- Full Page, which saves an entire page as it appears at the moment of clipping;
- Bookmark, which clips a thumbnail picture, gives a brief summary, and saves a link; and
- Screenshot, which captures a user-defined area of the page.
Each option has its strengths (with Screenshot allowing capture of Google Books pages or frames of video from many sites). PDFs can be clipped from the browser plugin (the option appears if PDFs are present) or attached to notes manually in the app. Figure 1 and Video 1 below show the use of the Evernote Web Clipper browser plugin to capture different kinds of sources.
Notes are instantly saved to the cloud and available from any device with the app or a web browser. They can be organized by simple folders, called notebooks, and further organized and searched by user-defined tags. Notes can be typed, handwritten, or entered via speech recognition, and can be embellished with links, file attachments, photos (from file or phone camera), and, in the phone app, with sound clips. Both individual notes or notebooks may be shared with multiple other users, and a rudimentary Work Chat feature allows more or less real-time collaboration. Video 2, below, shows the process of creating and sharing a notebook.
These features mean Evernote is popular as a personal organizer, allowing the capturing and categorizing of research results with a couple of clicks without breaking the flow of research. I have used it in several courses over recent semesters, including a graduate research methods course and an advanced-level literature and American slavery course, but will focus here on its employment in a 300-level undergraduate film and literature adaptation course. That course seemed to highlight Evernote’s particular strength in capturing wide-ranging research using nontraditional sources.
Film and literature students come from several degree programs (English, creative writing, theatre, and art and cinematography) with different expectations of and level of experience in student research. In addition, the process of film and literature adaptation is so commercially and culturally complex that instructor-led lectures or even instructor-provided additional research can barely scratch the surface of the forces involved. In addition to traditional academic sources, a wide variety of eclectic sources become invaluable, including interviews (from text, video, audio, and in one case a Reddit Ask Me Anything [[AMA]]), documentary or behind-the-scenes footage, storyboards, costume sketches, stills from films, and set design documents. Scripts, as well as financial, industrial, and distribution data, are often available and relevant to student research topics, and contemporary or current journalistic and popular reviews are also important, requiring the use of both library databases and open Internet searches. Finally, since the final project offers both a critical and a screenwriting and adaptation option, the spectrum of student research is broader than other courses; often students are searching not just for support for their arguments but writing advice, inspiration for their own adaptation work, and theoretical support for their creative approach.
Student and Pedagogical Goals
My goal was to encourage students to do research habitually to satisfy their own curiosity, to get them to formulate research questions, search diligently and completely, and weigh and balance the usefulness and reliability of a wide variety of material. Specifically, I wanted them to move beyond getting a minimum number of sources (and stopping at that) and instead more closely model a professional research process, where a preliminary survey of sources precedes coming up with a narrower topic or thesis, where searching follows questions, and where a large number of sources are typically sampled and rejected. In addition, I wanted to make sure students were moving towards the research competencies and information literacy standards put forth by the Association of College and Research Libraries (2007). To do this, I thought it wise to begin with a series of relatively low-stakes daily work assignments that would familiarize them with the application and the information sources involved while creating a digital learning commons of additional sources for the film adaptation pairs we were studying in class.
Shared Research Notebook and Learning Commons
I introduced students to the program early in the semester with a day of lecture and demonstration, a sample entry, and some guidelines for our daily work. I had students create free Evernote accounts, had them send me the emails they tied them to, then shared a common folder with them, priming it with a wide variety of resources for the first film and literature pairings. These pairings included copies of scripts at different stages of development; interviews with writers, actors, cinematographers, set designers, and other creative stakeholders; documentary making-of footage; and both scholarly articles and journalistic reviews that seemed to offer valuable information. For later pairs, I told students that they would collaboratively provide all the background material. Each student was required to clip three unique and valuable sources to the shared folder. In a class of fifteen, that meant 45 sources shared when all were participating, creating a sizable digital learning commons in which “members perceive themselves as contributing something of value to the larger 'common good'" (Beach, 2012, p. 448). For films and books well-represented in academic articles, I requested that students clip one peer-reviewed article or book entry. Because Evernote doesn’t track who originated notes in a shared notebook, I had them sign their name and graded participation by searching for mentions. As the semester went on, I increased my expectations of summary and tagging. Figure 2 below shows the Template Note (i.e., instructions) I shared, as it had been revised by the end of the semester for clarity and completeness.
In Figure 3 below, you can see the shared folder as well as the tags, a brief summary, and the “Fun fact” that a student found in the document (a sample chapter in a Google Book) as a result of questions raised in class during discussion.
The results were immediate. Student conversation about the films and books became much more informed. Some students showed evidence of having browsed shares beyond their own clips and of having developed a taste for production trivia and an ear for the genuinely interesting anecdote. Students often seemed eager to share some particularly curious fact from the shared file. A midterm essay showed the shared information being put to wide use. Despite low-stakes evaluation (every week’s shares were worth approximately the same as a two-page written daily work assignment), most students participated, though not all of them followed the increasing demands for annotation and classification. In particular, some students had problems with tagging because of a quirk in how tagging permissions worked in Evernote, and some students fell behind in amassing clips at one point or another during the semester. However, the scaffolding daily work seemed to prepare most students adequately to use the tool for their own research.
In future semesters, I will increase the amount and quality of first-day practice, preferably holding the orientation to the tool in a computer lab. I will also begin with strong tagging and summary standards and check the detail of student work earlier. I found that motivated students increased quality over the semester this time while unmotivated or overloaded students tended to fall back to bare-bones collection with limited summary or tagging. Since students seemed much more motivated to clip when they had time to discuss their discoveries in class, leaving a portion of the class every week for students to point out interesting discoveries specifically would help.
Comparing two semesters of student participation using the Evernote assignments, specifically looking at completion rates of daily written work late in both semesters, suggests that completion rates are impacted by how students prioritize the film-studies curriculum workflow: Students concurrently enrolled in practical cinematography classes tended to de-prioritize daily work in nonproduction classes such as mine, no matter the nature of that work, also suggesting that their drop in Evernote work was less a problem of technical proficiency than one of engagement.
Source Notebooks for Individual Research
In order to avoid a situation where students would have to propose research topics before conducting any preliminary research on that topic, I had students clip ten sources they thought would be useful for their topic to accompany their project proposal. They had to tag or annotate these sources according to genre, main topic, type of resource (primary or secondary), and whether they were peer reviewed. Then students shared the notebook (whose title included their name to make it easy to grade) with me. In addition, every student created a note in the notebook they shared with me containing a working list of research questions they would need to find answers to in order to write the paper, noting when they answered them, and continually updating sub-questions that arose. Compared to proposals from the same course in a previous year that used paper proposals, the Evernote-supported proposals were generally stronger, with better detail, and much more evidence of research. Though peer-reviewed articles made up some of the pre-reading, the use of less traditional sources (including clips, documentaries, interviews, costuming sketches, and storyboards) was much more prevalent. I also found students who chose the screenwriting option clipped more how-to sources and theoretical and terminology sites.
Throughout the semester, students kept clipping all sources they thought they might use, learning to search the Internet broadly and then winnow down. In lieu of an annotated bibliography, as the semester progressed I had them choose the ten strongest and most relevant sources in their notebook to write summaries and evaluations of within the note. If a source was a clipped database entry for an article without full text, I recommended students attach the .pdf file to the note when interlibrary loan came in, making it possible for me to check not just the eventual formatting of the works cited page but also to spot check their summaries and the accuracy of their paraphrases and quotations in the final paper. Figure 4 below shows a sample clip for a director autobiography.
Unlike a single-paper annotated bibliography, this process made it possible for me to get a more or less real-time snapshot of student research processes––to see when they were searching and, usually, what databases they employed. It was easy for me to add an evaluation note to their files and offer research advice, noting, for instance, if students have failed to use a particularly relevant database, or if some of their sources were of dubious value. In one case, I was able to link to a search results page when a student had assured me relatively late in the process that there were no peer-reviewed sources on his topic, restarting the search process. This kind of informal intercession led to fewer final papers in which inappropriate sources were used uncritically, and in several cases led to students refocusing on different databases or search techniques to find the sources they needed.
When the final research papers came due, I graded them with the shared notebooks open. It was easy at that point to check the accuracy of a source without replicating student searches. In those final papers, more students seemed to reach a self-motivated stage of research, where they had moved past the requirements of the assignment to use more, more nuanced, and more diverse sources to support their arguments than were required or suggested.
Disclaimers, Problems, and Revisions
All technical integration experiments have their limitations, and this was no exception. Evernote in its various instantiations is clearly an app in rapid development, frequently requiring updates. The look and capabilities of the web clipper, the web interface, and the app versions for different OSs are changing rapidly, and I had to help students troubleshoot installations more than once after updates. I had to reinstall Evernote Web Clipper twice, in fact, while editing this article. In addition to adapting to a changing tool, there were various technical difficulties to be overcome. As I mentioned before, students have to sign their name to notes clipped to shared notebooks for the note’s origin to be clear. Also, notes in a shared notebook can only contain the tags that the originator of the notebook has already added, leading to some frustration. Students must be given a list or handout for all the tags the notebook’s originator has added; if they tag something with a noncompliant tag in their own notebook, then attempt to move the note into the shared folder, the program will block them from moving it. At the end, I was forced to grade very leniently on tagging compliance in the shared notebooks because I didn’t have enough time in the semester to address all issues. Lack of tags didn’t seriously impede students finding sources, as searches also use the titles of clips and the full-text of annotations.
The program also allows any person added to a shared folder to delete notes, which could potentially lead to accidental deletion or moving of a shared artifact. It turned out to be important to give students a bit of slack about contributions, to make time to support the technology in office hours, and to give students the benefit of the doubt when they cited technical problems. Recommending that students clip a backup copy of their notes might help as well. The free version of Evernote has limits to the size of individual notes (25 mb) and to monthly uploads (60 mb). If inefficiently scanned PDFs or very large photos or audio files were being used, a student could conceivably run afoul of the usage limits, though it hasn’t happened in any class where I’ve used Evernote, even in graduate classes where students make much more extensive use of full-text PDFs. (Paid accounts have much larger usage quota.) Finally, students with visual impairments may have problems with Evernote's accessibility because the font size and contrast for the UI is not adjustable in each app on every platform, and because the program seems to interact unpredictably with screen-reading software.
Pedagogically, it was clear by the end of the semester that I should have had more defined standards and clearer examples from the beginning and spent more time checking individual competence with the tool, making sure students had mastered the specific technical skills before moving on. Instructional screencasts would undoubtedly have reduced some students' difficulties and required less personal attention. Encouraging students to evaluate and annotate each other’s shared clips would probably have helped sharpen critical digital and information literacy skills early on and would have helped provide more feedback.
Using Evernote has proven to be a valuable tool to teach information literacy and create a sense of community in class research. Despite fairly light documentation on the Evernote site, most students were able to come up to speed with the technical knowledge quickly. Students seemed to get use out of the shared commons of literary and film resources, something that would be impossible to do with print daily work. The proposal, research update, and source list for the final project showed a broader selection of sources than most student work in classes where I have not employed the tool. In addition to the ease of monitoring student research, I have found, like Astrid Scepman, Paul Rodway, Carol Beattie, and Jordana Lambert (2012), that students who sample Evernote will tend to use it for their other courses. Roughly 80% of students surveyed at the end of courses featuring an Evernote assignment said that they enjoyed using the program and seeing other students’ research results. Several students reported telling their friends about the program and teaching other students to use it. I will continue to use Evernote in advanced literature and film courses in the future, and I think it would particularly shine in composition and technical writing courses with group assignments and in any course where building and coaching student information literacy and research skills are important.
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