Spiral-bound interactive notebooks have long been a popular way to encourage creativity and critical thinking—and digital versions can do so as well.
In 2007, I taught at a public high school that was obsessed with interactive notebooks. They fully embraced the interactive-notebook movement and bought every ninth-grade student a thick spiral notebook for each core subject. The notebooks were delivered to classrooms in large boxes to be distributed to students each semester.
The concept is simple: The left side is for creative thinking, and the right side is for objective material. The right side often involves cutting and pasting handouts that require critical thinking and interacting with the materials. A table of contents (TOC) on the first page aligns with a large, visible class version to keep students on track with their page numbering.
They’re designed to teach organization, allow students to explore ideas creatively in their own manner, and encourage multiple learning approaches for the same content that engages in higher-level thinking.
Recently, a friend shared with me the interactive-notebook strategy adopted by teachers at their school during the fall semester of the pandemic. Imagine: a PowerPoint with more than 40 slides for a sixth-grade unit on minerals and rocks. Each slide had an orientation to replicate a full-size piece of paper. Students made a copy of the PowerPoint and then filled in the blanks for questions, definitions, and notes. There were no left-side or right-side assignments and no encouragement to use different learning activities for the same content, and there was minimal higher-level thinking.
Students quickly learned that they could copy and paste answers from the internet or their friends. These new, digital-interactive notebooks abandoned every criterion of the interactive notebook. They were hardly interactive.
This example has not applied the substitution, augmentation, modification, and redefinition, or SAMR, model for technology transition, which helps educators adopt technology in a way that advances learning. For example, using a PowerPoint is a substitute for a teacher writing on a board. However, a teacher using Nearpod, which integrates interactive features and real-time feedback, truly is a redefinition of the class lecture.
There are many examples of interactive notebooks that have successfully transitioned from the clunky spiral notebook to the digital counterpart.
4 Ways to Get the Benefits of Interactive Notebooks Digitally
1. Ditch a clunky PowerPoint in favor of a TOC that includes left-side and right-side activities. Students create a folder in their Google Drive that will keep all the documents for that unit. Each time they create a new document, they add the hyperlink to the appropriate assignment in their table of contents. The idea of creative side versus objective side is preserved even if the actual assignments are not in those physical positions. Students see the difference in their TOC.
Click here for an example of the setup created by Rebecca Newburn, a veteran teacher of 31 years at Hall Middle School in Larkspur, California.
2. Include any great apps your students regularly use as one of the hyperlinked activities in the TOC. Your options are limitless. Students in a course with a lot of vocabulary can insert the link to their own self-designed Quizlet. If you love using ThingLink to have students annotate diagrams, graphs, pictures, and other visuals, students insert the link to their ThingLink. Use a lot of videos? Whether you are making your own videos or sharing other existing videos, use Edpuzzle as one of the right-side activities. With EdPuzzle, students watch videos paused at strategic moments with questions for engagement. Your imagination is the limit with other free apps, like Popplet for mind mapping or Padlet or Nearpod.
The advantage of the digital, interactive notebook is that all of these apps and online resources can now be integrated and organized into students’ interactive notebooks.
3. Have students submit handwritten notes. I like my students to take notes by hand due to years of research about increased retention through this method. It allows students to detach from their computer and take notes from a textbook. Then they can submit a picture of the notes into their Google Drive with a link in the TOC.
4. Check work frequently, and encourage collaboration. With the spiral-interactive notebooks, teachers collected them for periodic feedback and assessment of learning. They were clunky and took up space. Teaching 150 ninth graders was a challenge. With the digital format, it’s so easy to take a peek.
Even more so, the digital format lends itself to peer evaluation and collaborative study. Students studying together is a much-needed practice during the pandemic, when students long to connect. The digital, interactive notebook provides the structure that students need. They pair up and share their TOC with a classmate, who can then access a specific activity that has been assigned for review. Or they can use a Quizlet that another student created. This helps students not only assess others but reflect and evaluate their own learning.
These take-a-peek sessions can be followed up with whole-class discussions about what they observed and learned from their classmates. This is a great way to get students working in hybrid or remote situations to interact with all members of the class.
Interactive notebooks have been around for decades. As with any other great pedagogical strategy, it’s possible with a little bit of creativity to transition to a digital format and maintain the learning advantages.