Opening the Doors to Learning: Technology Research for Students with Learning Disabilities (Notetaking Skills)

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) has primary responsibility for administering programs and projects relating to the free appropriate public education of all children, youth and adults with disabilities, from birth through age 21. For nearly a decade, through its Technology, Development, Demonstration, and Utilization Program, OSEP) has been developing learning tools and instructional practices that help engage the minds and foster the independence of individuals with physical, sensory, intellectual and emotional disabilities. The Technology Program supports research, development, and dissemination activities that advance the availability, quality, use, and effectiveness of tools in educating children and youth with disabilities. Teachers, parents and administrators will be able to use these materials to incorporate research-based practices and technological tools in the classroom to help students with learning disabilities. The video features positive examples of how students and teachers can benefit for the use of technology in their classrooms. The accompanying text offers in-depth information about the technology applications shown in the video.

Developing Skills to Participate in Instruction


Children are inherently receptive to learning. Yet for many children, disabilities too often limit their access to meaningful instruction and challenging curriculum. But this does not have to be. With appropriate supports, children with learning disabilities can and do make significant learning gains. Technology is one of those supports.

Researchers across the country are finding that technology tools can make learning possible for students with learning disabilities. As the video shows, technology combined with effective instruction enables teachers to:

  • Help students develop study skills necessary for accessing instruction alongside their nondisabled peers.
  • Include students in challenging, standards-based math curricula.
  • Provide opportunities for students to learn basic literacy skills.
  • Encourage students to communicate their thoughts and ideas through writing.

These results are impressive, especially in light of the fact that over 60% of all students with disabilities in the United States have cognitive learning difficulties--disabilities similar to those portrayed in the video. These students typically lack strategies, skills, and self regulation--characteristics which technology tools can help them develop.

As teachers and families plan their children's educational programs, it is important to consider how technology might support high achievement. In fact, the special education law--the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was reauthorized by U.S. Congress in 1997--requires that assistive technology devices and services be considered for all children receiving special education services under the law. In all of the cases shown in the video, technology was a vital part of the child's individualized education program (IEP). And, for good reason. These cases document how new tools and improved instructional strategies are helping students not only read, write, and calculate better, but also become more confident in their abilities as learners.

Using the Guide

The Instructional Practices: How-To Guide adds more in-depth information about the technology applications shown in the video.

In particular, the guide provides:

  • Information about each of the technology solutions shown in the video. It is important to note that all technology tools presented in the video were research-based. That is, the researchers have proven the effectiveness of their strategies in classrooms with students with learning disabilities.
  • More detailed descriptions of the instructional strategies underlying the use of the featured technology interventions. In all cases, researchers incorporated effective principles of instruction into their technology application. For example, the tools help students link old and new knowledge, learn explicit strategies, and have increased opportunities for practicing and receiving feedback.
  • Supplementary information that explains in more detail the difficulties faced by each student introduced in the video. For example, students with learning disabilities have inefficient strategies for organizing, remembering, and attending to information. Many also lack skills and background knowledge, which results in them falling farther and farther behind as new knowledge is built upon earlier information that they never mastered. Finally, a large number of these students have problems with self-regulation or meta-cognitive strategies, which causes them great difficulty evaluating their own performance.
  • Suggestions for how similar solutions can be incorporated into other schools and classrooms. Teachers who worked with the featured researchers share their suggestions for integrating the technology tools into the classroom. They provide practical suggestions that underlie success.

The potential of technology to improve and enhance teaching and learning for students with disabilities is unlimited. Having a research base is the key to success in using technology tools. It removes much of the risk from teaching because the strategies have been proven to work in classrooms and get results for students with disabilities. As you read through this guide, consider how these examples of technology tools might be incorporated into your own instructional program to improve the results of students whom you know.

Luke's Story

Luke Syrius is a bright and articulate tenth-grader from Eugene, Oregon. For years, Luke has had difficulty organizing and remembering information presented to him during class, and distinguishing central ideas from supporting details in a teacher's lecture. These difficulties affect his ability to take notes during instructional presentations. Luke's teachers realized that for him to master basic skills of organizing and processing information, he needed both instruction in notetaking skills and strategy support in how to pick out the key ideas in a lecture. With the right instructional support, Luke is capable of learning challenging curricula.

To address Luke's needs--and those of other students with similar characteristics--Lynne Anderson-Inman, a professor at the University of Oregon, developed Project Connect. Project Connect is a computerized notetaking system that helps students with learning disabilities identify key points in a lecture. Anderson-Inman's personal network approach supports students' classroom information needs by serving as an information pipeline that bridges the gap between what is presented or discussed in class and what the student can hear or understand.

Because the personal network is interactive, students who receive this type of support can also use the computer to stay active as learners. In their own text window, students can simultaneously take notes to the best of their ability and use a "chat box" to ask questions of their notetakers. In this way, notetakers can clarify the content of classroom presentations, build students' confidence for using new concepts and vocabulary words, and even prompt students to ask their questions of the teacher. When class is over, students leave with two sets of electronic notes, one created by themselves and one created by the notetaker. Using study strategies taught to them during out-of-class tutoring sessions, students learn effective ways to use the notes for reviewing, studying, and completing assignments, either on computer or on paper.

As a result of working with Project Connect, Luke has learned to identify the important information contained in classroom lectures and to use that information for learning. In turn, his motivation and self-confidence in school have improved, and he has gained enough skills to take notes without the help of a notetaker. Project Connect has given Luke and other students like him the key to becoming successful, lifelong learners.

Features of the Technology

Here is how the Project Connect system works. Luke is assigned to an expert notetaker who meets with him daily. During these sessions, Luke is provided instruction in notetaking skills.

A key component of the Project Connect system is the generalization of notetaking skills into the classroom environment. Once in the classroom, the goal is for Luke to practice notetaking with immediate feedback. The notetaker accompanies Luke into the classroom during the skill generalization period.

To achieve these instructional goals, Project Connect incorporates three types of technology: two laptop computers, a synchronous writing and drawing software, and a Photonics' wireless infrared networking device. The notetaker and the student are each given a laptop computer complete with software. The computers are wirelessly networked to one another so that the information on each computer can be shared. Wireless networking uses infrared signals rather than telephone wires to pass information from one computer to another. By not relying on wires, the student is free to sit at his or her own desk in class while the notetaker sits off to the side or in the back of the class.

Using the synchronous writing software, both the notetaker and the student take notes during a classroom presentation or discussion. Because the laptops are networked, the student can type his or her notes on one side of the screen and simultaneously see the notes that the notetaker is typing on the opposite side of the screen.

For example, a personal network can be used by an expert notetaker to model effective classroom notetaking for students with learning disabilities. Notes may emphasize the use of key words, abbreviations, clauses instead of full sentences, and space to indicate relationships between topics, subtopics, and details. At the end of a lecture, both sets of notes can be printed out and compared, giving the student both a record of the lecture as well as an example of effective notes to emulate in the future.

This arrangement allows Luke to see quality notes being taken during the course of classroom discussions, lectures, and presentations. As Luke takes his notes, he is able to compare them with those of the expert notetaker--which provides a model for him as he develops his own notetaking skills. The student can print out both sets of notes, and also has the notes saved on his computer.

The notetaker generally works with an individual student during one class period for an entire school year. Time is arranged for students to meet with the notetaker sometime during the day to review progress and troubleshoot difficulties. Once students have mastered the skills, the notetaker is phased out.

Rationale: Using Technology to Support Effective Instruction

Notetaking and organization of information are essential skills for accessing information in most secondary and adult classrooms. Students with learning disabilities often have trouble organizing information and identifying central ideas from a classroom lecture. Typically, these students struggle to remember every word or concept, and are unable to distinguish larger themes and issues from supporting details.

There are several advantages of using technology to teach notetaking skills over traditional teacher-led instruction. The advantages for students are that they:

  • Become hooked by the novelty of the computer and become engaged quickly.
  • Receive immediate feedback which reduces error and increases motivation to improve.
  • Achieve the curriculum content while they are practicing the notetaking skills.
  • Develop skill independence faster and more efficiently.

Once students learn the skill of notetaking, they need substantial practice with feedback to ensure that they are applying the skill appropriately. Further, they need direct support in self-regulating skill use. The best place to practice such skills is in an authentic instructional setting in which mastery of this very skill is a prerequisite for successful participation.

In large group classroom instruction, such demands for individual student attention pose a challenge for teachers. How does a teacher conduct an effective presentation, and provide the amount of feedback needed by students who are struggling to master notetaking skills? Project Connect addresses this instructional dilemma by directly teaching students how to take notes and how to effectively pick out key ideas from lectures. The effective instructional strategies of practice with feedback, modeling, and direct instruction of skills are reflected in the design of Project Connect technology.

Modeling. With Project Connect, students are assigned an expert model, who provides the individual student with examples of good notes during practice sessions in actual classrooms. Modeling helps students link old and new knowledge. During classroom lectures, the notetaker serves as a model for students by demonstrating how to listen for facts during a lecture, how to distinguish between central ideas and supporting details, and how to record information concisely on the computer. The notetaker trains the student to watch the notes that he or she is taking, and to emulate the style and level of detail. An example of modeling can be seen in the video when Luke and his notetaker sit together and take notes simultaneously during a classroom lecture.

Practice with immediate feedback. As students practice new skills, they need help applying them correctly in real classroom situations. The Project Connect technology provides students with a high degree of feedback and individualized support until they can use successful notetaking skills on their own to extract information from lectures and identify important ideas. Because the technology provides individual students with immediate feedback, teachers are free to devote their attention to the instructional presentation.

As students become proficient in applying their notetaking skills to classroom instruction, the notetaker is phased out of the classroom. Students begin to self-regulate--that is they monitor their own ability to utilize the skills in the actual setting.

Direct instruction in notetaking skills. Although some students at the secondary level will learn simply by modeling the notetaker during lectures, others will benefit from direct skill instruction or explicit strategies. A significant component of Project Connect is direct instruction for students on successful notetaking strategies. This instruction helps students understand what the notetaker is recording, and ensures that students will progress to a level of comfort and skill in taking their own notes so that the notetaker is no longer necessary as a support. The notetakers work with the students in follow-up sessions, discussing with the student what type of information to listen for during class and how to structure the notes.

Making it Work in the Classroom: Suggestions from Larry Soberman, Luke's Teacher

Larry Soberman, Luke's teacher, knows firsthand what it takes to ensure the success of students using the Project Connect system. Over the past year, Soberman has been working with Lynne Anderson-Inman and her colleagues to test the effectiveness of the technology. Luke is one of his greatest successes.

Students in Soberman's high school resource room have a wide range of skills and abilities. According to Soberman, selecting the right students for Project Connect technology is a major key to success. Students who do well with this technology generally have the ability to go on to college or into technical fields where notetaking is required. Soberman learned that it is important to select students who have the ability to learn the material and who want what is offered. Otherwise, teachers may not experience the same level of success.

For example, students who have low motivation, who have skill deficits that extend beyond their inability to take notes, and readiness skill deficits (e.g., listening, writing, concentration) are not good candidates for the technology. In fact, Soberman found that students who lack motivation and the prerequisite skills typically use the technology to "hide out"-- a term he uses to describe students who seldom complete work and who do the minimum to get by. Soberman also notes that good keyboarding skills are a must, because students are expected to type their notes.

As a classroom teacher, Soberman did not need to do anything extra. The beauty of the technology is that it frees the teacher to deliver the curriculum content as usual. Because teachers are not directly involved in implementing the technology--other than to monitor its use in the classroom--it is essential that notetakers are competent and afforded the opportunity to work individually with students

Office of Special Education Programs U.S. Department of Education