Posted in Assistive Technology, Eleanor Cawley, M.S., OTR/L, New Beginings, Occupational Therapy

When Is It The Time To Recommend Assistive Technology For Note-Taking?

I must state, before anyone reads this, that I am a HUGE fan of using assistive technology.

I recently read a comment about a piece of technology not being “cool.”  I realize that there are students who will never feel “cool” when using assistive technology.   I also feel that students must be taught touch typing and the basics of functional programing before being asked to take notes using assistive technology.  It always boggles my mind when some recommends a piece of assistive technology, such as an Alpha Smart, without ever considering if it will really work for the student.  Many students consider an Alpha Smart to be ‘uncool’ for the following reasons:

  1. Looking different from peers
  2. Not knowing how to use the device
  3. Still not being able to keep up
  4. Fumbling with the technology in front of others

In my humble opinion, students need time to learn how to use such a piece of equipment or a program.  One of the reasons that a student might need the technology is due to an inability to handwrite legibly.  Another might be difficulty organizing thoughts and motor movements.   Assistive technology needs to be worked on privately with the student or in a very small group with other students using similar technology.  Every aspect of using that device and the skill that it is supposed to support needs to be worked on prior to giving this device/technology to the student to use in the real world.  For example, when providing an alternative keyboard to a student to use to take notes the following needs to be explored:

  1. Can the student take notes without the device even though his or her handwriting may be illegible to others?
  2. Does the student know the verbal cues that would trigger him or her to start taking notes?
  3. Is the student capable of taking dictation either written or using a keyboard?
  4. Can the student use those verbal cues to format notes?  If a student hears the terms “Pros and Cons” or the word “conversely” does the student know that this may be a great time to use a T-Chart style of notes?
  5. Can the student attend to the instructor long enough to follow the lecture?
  6. Is the student familiar enough with the keyboard to type at least 30 words per minute over the length of the class for note taking?
  7. Can the student use punctuation to help the notes make sense with any degree of success?
  8. Is the student comfortable enough with keyboarding in a room full of other students, who are not using a keyboard, to be successful?

Obviously, I could ramble on and on.  We need to think, “When is an alternative device or program better than the low-tech copy of notes provided to the student?  The technology that we supply is only as good as the support that we give to the student.  If we jump to provide assistive technology to a student without looking at the student’s overall ability to succeed without the device, then are we sabotaging the student to dump the device or program and throw in the towel?

I feel that note-taking should be a skill taught in every school, to every student.   A task analysis of note-taking skills needs to be completed and the student assessed using that analysis before providing a device.  The organization of the page should come before the thought of using an assistive technology device or program.  The language that we use in the classroom should trigger a particular format of notes.

There is so much learning that needs to be done by each and every student.  Students are getting frustrated and need to have a place, a structure to go back to.  At that point, once the structure has been taught and reinforced and the student is not yet successful, then and only then should a device or program be considered for taking notes.

I know that every teacher that I come in contact with is working day and night to help all the students learn everything they need to.  I know that many provide notes, study guides and review materials to students, hoping that somewhere, sometime, something will work at some point.  I think that those of us working with students need the structure, the organizational hierarchy, to assess a student’s abilities just like our students need to learn.


I am an occupational therapist with 18 years of experience in the pediatric sector, much of that time as an independent contractor. I am very passionate about my work and my writing. My degrees include a Bachelor’s of Science in Health Sciences and a Master’s of Science in Occupational Therapy from Touro College. Since graduating as a non-traditional student, I have worked in a variety of settings throughout the life span but settled in the area of school-based therapy. My interests lie in the area of using technology to support independence and I often train students to use programming not only to monitor their own goal progress but also support educational, vocational and life skills. Another area of particular interest is documentation. As an independent contractor for many years, I feel that it is important to align methods of documenting goal progress with educators for greater consistency and understanding when writing for an IEP. It is better to plan a format for documentation used in the IEP, such as for assessment and goal progress and that a rubric, in many ways, fulfills the need for consistency in documentation across all domains. Combining my interest in technology and documentation, I use Microsoft OneNote to maintain all documentation. I create a digital notebook for each student or patient with any forms required uploaded as templates which can then be completed, and saved automatically. I strongly believe in student centered approach to therapy. Students must be active participants in developing goals and documenting progress. In order to help students understand their progress, I teach my students to develop electronic portfolios and to use spreadsheet programming with graphs to collect data and view progress, whenever possible.