The Science Behind PowerNotes

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PowerNotes provides colleges and universities with a bridge between the paper-based reading and research processes of the past and the more cost-effective, openly available, but nascent digital research practices of the future.

Over the past decade, educational institutions have increasingly relied on digital media for academic research. While the shift from print to digital storage has occurred rapidly, the tools available to help researchers accomplish the complex process of source-based writing have not kept pace. Studies have shown that, without intervention, this reliance can lead to a degradation of academic outcomes. Higher education institutions are only starting to grapple with this problem.

We designed PowerNotes to fill the void caused by this shift, allowing researchers to read, organize, and analyze information effectively - a skillset necessary for success in both school and ostensibly all professions in our increasingly digital world.

Specifically, PowerNotes focuses on solving three problems encountered by digital researchers:

  1. Screen Reading

  2. Information Management

  3. Plagiarism and patchwriting

Screen Reading

As more resources are available exclusively in digital form, database companies and educational institutions have (implicitly or explicitly) decided that students will access information through their web browser. That decision forces researchers to read, analyze, and organize information on screens with increasing volume.

The initial results of the digital shift and increased screen reading are alarming. Numerous academic studies find that screen reading leads to poorer comprehension, retention, and deep understanding. These results present a troubling combination for students and their resulting written work, especially considering that research and writing is “almost a universal professional skill required in service industries” and critical to individual success.

Many studies cite the "mental topography" created by print reading in aiding comprehension and retention, and find that scrolling through digital content does not create the same kind of mental anchors as print reading. Thankfully, screen reading is not intractably worse than print reading: some of these studies also tested and verified methods that produce as good, and sometimes superior, outcomes as compared to print reading. These studies found that, when researchers provided students with active annotation, highlighting, and categorization tools, screen readers replicated the mental topography (and better outcomes) created by print reading.

Distractions are another major source of concern for the digital reader, manifesting themselves in digital text much more abundantly (and harmfully to the researcher) than in print. “Online learning presents an extreme of sorts with its uncensored, unedited maelstrom of anything and everything that is always available and capable of diverting one’s attention.” Every time the reader is taken away from the source, whether to follow a link, check their phone, or copy material for later use, they break their reading focus. Upon returning to the source material, the reader needs to reorient themselves to recapture the context necessary to understand the entirety of what the author means to convey, something novice and even expert readers find difficult in the screen environment.  

At PowerNotes we’ve used the findings from these studies to create a screen environment that allows researchers to maintain focus and engage in deep reading. By combining cognitive science and user-supportive design, PowerNotes improves comprehension, retention, and critical thinking - unlike other annotation tools, citation managers, or web clippers (such as OneNote, EverNote, Zotero, etc.).

PowerNotes uses a multi-step process to help screen readers create mental anchors while minimizing distractions:

  1. First, when a researcher identifies and highlights a useful passage, PowerNotes prompts the researcher to categorize that passage within the researcher’s thesis, argument, or framework. Categorization is a critical mental step that begins to anchor the passage and its meaning for the researcher.

  2. Second, immediately after categorizing a passage, PowerNotes prompts the researcher to annotate. This step causes the researcher to start synthesizing and internalizing the passage.

  3. Third, when the researcher has categorized and annotated the passage, PowerNotes automatically moves the passage and annotations into an outline while gathering and organizing the source URL, date and time visited, and other metadata so the researcher always has a research trail and attribution information. This takes the administrative burden of recording this information off the researcher so they can continue reading uninterrupted.

  4. Finally, throughout this process, PowerNotes maintains the researcher’s focus on the source material, without the need to access other windows, programs, or areas of the screen. No program or app streamlines the gathering, analysis, and annotation of source material like PowerNotes.

The following clips show how PowerNotes keeps researcher’s focused on content and deters the researcher from looking at other areas of the screen or to other windows/tabs or programs.

Information Management

Storing knowledge digitally allows researchers to access an incredible volume of information with a few keystrokes. The challenge is no longer “How do I find relevant sources?” Rather, many students find themselves “lost in a thicket of information overload.” The paradoxical challenge for today’s students is “With a bottomless universe of information, how do I analyze, synthesize, and organize all of this?”

The PowerNotes team has conducted hundreds of interviews with students, faculty, and professionals; most of them attempt to “overcome” this challenge by defaulting to a “tried and true” process of copying and pasting passages into a separate document. This method in particular has many drawbacks, including adding to cognitive load and distractions, while running afoul of the guidelines for productive screen reading. Most other web clippers and annotation tools present the same problems, while being more cumbersome than copy/pasting passages and URLs into a separate document.

Moreover, once the researcher has collected their research using the copy/paste method, they are left with a long running list of passages that is disorganized. Most novice writers will simply begin writing without further organization and find themselves mired in the seemingly disparate information they have collected. More experienced researchers, on the other hand, have elaborate processes that are inefficient and do not scale well to a larger number of sources.

The system PowerNotes deploys to facilitate effective screen reading doubles as a simple, but powerful, organizational tool. When researchers categorize and annotate passages, PowerNotes uses those inputs to create an annotated, conceptual outline. Then, after researchers have gathered information, PowerNotes facilitates critical thinking and analysis by allowing researchers to easily re-organize passages as their knowledge grows.

The PowerNotes organizational framework is also flexible enough to accommodate both novice and advanced research processes. Beginners can start with simple, high-level categories when they begin an assignment and add nuance and complexity as the researcher becomes more familiar with the field of study, all without leaving the source. Advanced researchers can pre-define their initial categories and add as they progress through the research process.

The following clip shows how PowerNotes creates an annotated outline while the researcher works:

Plagiarism and Patchwriting

Plagiarism has become a growing problem for writing instructors. Computers have given students the ability to copy and paste, making plagiarism easier than ever before. The vast amount of information available on the internet and the lack of tools for researchers to efficiently track that information serve to exacerbate the problem.

Most of the writing instructors with whom we have spoken are more concerned with patchwriting and unintentional plagiarism than outright intentional plagiarism. Both issues stem from a combination of a lack of understanding of the source material, screen reading problems, and poor organization.

Researchers often patchwrite when they lack the ability to synthesize underlying concepts, instead opting to restate language from sources with minor changes. A lack of conceptual understanding can be a result of screen reading, especially for students entering academic discourse in a new field of study. PowerNotes’ annotation tools help students maintain focus, engage in deep reading, and build their understanding of once-foreign subject matter, mitigating the patchwriting problem throughout the research and writing process.

Unintentional plagiarism, by contrast, occurs most often when researchers: (a) conflate text lifted directly from a source with their personal notes, (b) fail to record sufficient attribution information during the research process; (c) do not understand underlying concepts (similar to patchwriting); or (d) experience some combination thereof. By contrast to the copy/paste method, PowerNotes automatically tracks source links and keeps passages from sources distinct from the researcher’s personal notes, significantly reducing the factors that lead to unintentional plagiarism.

PowerNotes addresses these problems with a preventative solution to plagiarism, rather than relying on sophisticated tools devoted to detecting plagiarism and forcing professors to play “Plagiarism Police.”

Why it matters

Make no mistake, as higher education institutions increasingly focus on preparing students for the workplace, they need to improve how students access, synthesize, and repurpose online information.

Writing is a core skill for most professions, including professional services, one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy. And yet, more than any other “hard” skill, employers cite writing as the skill most lacking in recent college graduates, topping more-flashy skills like data analysis, web design, coding/programing, and digital marketing.

Even in the tech industry, the critical thinking, research, and writing skills taught in the humanities, rather than coding and data analysis, are among the most desirable skills. Our company, itself a tech startup, provides perhaps the perfect case study: We devoted weeks of our time to analyzing the current literature on screen reading, information management, and plagiarism, later synthesizing what we learned and incorporating it into the core functions of our product.

Throughout that research and writing process, we used PowerNotes to gather articles and structure this summary. If you want to see the annotated research outline we built, check out the video below.

If screen reading, information management, and plagiarism are problems you care about, and you would like to learn more about PowerNotes or how we work with institutions to solve them, please reach out to us here.