Improving the Quality of Source-Based Writing Through Better Process



We built PowerNotes based on our experience and frustration with digital research and writing. Until now, tools have not been developed specifically for today’s research process and the transition into writing, leading to inefficiency and frustration for students and instructors, who must resort to using products built for other purposes. PowerNotes is designed to address the challenges inherent to source-based writing in the digital environment. We seek to improve writing quality with tools that provide an efficient and continuous workflow through the entire digital research and writing process.


The Shift to Digital Research and Writing

Over the past 40 years, writing tools have undergone significant changes. When the transition from manual to typed and digital writing occurred, word processing software was designed to facilitate this new method of writing. Modern word-processing applications can take writers through all aspects of drafting, editing, feedback, and final product production. Due to its origins, the word processor performs its role in facilitating the writing process effectively.

The shift to digital research is a more recent trend. What used to be available exclusively in libraries as recently as the 1990s, is now available online and, in many cases, only online. The accessibility of academic and non-academic sources has grown exponentially, providing the benefit of wider dissemination of knowledge, but also creating the burdens of volume and reduced readability. Now more than ever, tools are needed to help researchers better analyze, manage, and keep track of their digital sources. But those tools have been lacking in this new research environment.

Students wading through research are left to invent their own ad hoc processes that include word processors, spreadsheets, web clippers, and browsers, none of which are well suited for research tasks. All of these tools were designed to accomplish other things. As such, these tools do not perform many of the actions required to conduct an efficient research process, leading to student frustration and anxiety with the writing process, errors, and potentially, plagiarism. Indeed, since research has largely moved from paper to digital format, tools have not been created that effectively streamline the academic research process – until PowerNotes.


How PowerNotes Builds a Digital Process

At PowerNotes, we think about source-based writing as a process requiring the author to master a number of interconnected skills. This process is nonlinear; that is, students need to revisit their research multiple times, reorganize their research as their knowledge grows, and go through multiple drafts to produce a final product. Unfortunately, today’s researchers do not have the tools necessary to effectively move between, and to revisit, these stages in the digital environment. Moreover, for students who are learning many or all of those skills at once, the process is daunting.

We designed PowerNotes to unify the steps of reading, gathering, saving, annotating, organizing, outlining, tracking, and citing research into a single, efficient workflow that feeds directly into the writing process. (PowerNotes streamlines the process steps in the boxes below).

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 10.19.28 AM.png

First, PowerNotes combines gathering, saving, annotating, and organizing research into a single step that occurs while a student reads and analyzes each source. Here, we designed PowerNotes to improve digital reading comprehension and retention by minimizing the distractions caused by the current research process. Per the chart below, almost half of students copy and paste passages from sources into a separate document to save them for later use (the “Copy and Paste Method”), which requires them to switch between applications every time they want to save a passage (talk about distractions!).

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 10.21.16 AM.png

The Copy and Paste Method drastically, and negatively, impacts reading comprehension and retention. By contrast, PowerNotes’ interface minimizes distractions by following best practices to reduce distraction and foster deep reading as students take the necessary steps to save materials. To design these features, we dug deep into the latest cognitive studies on screen versus print reading; our findings are available in this blog post.

Second, PowerNotes automatically organizes content. When a student uses PowerNotes to highlight and annotate passages from sources, PowerNotes takes that content and automatically formats the saved passages into an outline organized by categories created by the student. This outline framework is extremely flexible, allowing students to add topics as they read, change topic names, and reorder topics so that their outline can evolve alongside their growing knowledge of the subject area they are researching.

Using the Copy and Paste Method leaves students with a long running document filled with relevant and irrelevant quotes in no particular order. At this point (see chart below), most students skip the step of reorganizing their research into an outline and, instead, dive straight into writing their paper. This approach usually leads to disorganized papers that read like a stream of consciousness or recitation of facts.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 10.22.29 AM.png

Third, PowerNotes facilitates the most difficult step in the source-based writing process – the transition from research to writing (see the chart below). Students can easily restructure PowerNotes outlines from topical categories to conceptual ones, putting the student in the best position to start a first draft supported by her research. For a detailed description of how PowerNotes facilitates the transition from research to writing, we recommend this blog post.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 10.23.38 AM.png

Finally, PowerNotes incorporates attribution into its workflow by automatically saving citation information as students save passages from sources. The timing of this step is important, as most students leave attribution until the end of the writing process. Addressing attribution at the end of the process can lead to plagiarism as students may have lost track of the original sources they visited weeks or months before. Indeed, PowerNotes is the only tool designed to proactively prevent plagiarism rather than catch plagiarism after the fact. For more on how PowerNotes prevents plagiarism, click here.

In summary, unlike other tools, PowerNotes approaches the research and writing process holistically. And the need for a holistic approach is clear: using multiple tools each designed to accomplish a discrete step in the research process, like word-processing applications or citation managers, leads to gaps in understanding, organization, attribution and, ultimately, composition. With PowerNotes, researchers can use a single tool that facilitates the entire digital research process, putting themselves in the best position to compose well-supported written work.

We invite you to explore PowerNotes through other materials available here, or to request a demonstration of PowerNotes for you or your staff, contact us here.

Recommended blog post: The Science Behind PowerNotes