How Do I Use Note Catchers to Support Group Work and Collaborative Note Taking?

How Do I Use Note Catchers to Support Group Work and Collaborative Note Taking?

Example of a note catcher used in a CTL session
(Example of a note catcher used in a CTL session)


Why Note Catchers?

Many faculty have discovered that note catchers - shared collaborative documents accessed in real time during class - are extremely useful, particularly when your course involves small group work, for:

  • bridging the gap between synchronous and asynchronous learners and learning; 
  • providing instructions that can be accessed during small group work; 
  • monitoring student effort in small groups both online and in person; 
  • guiding the whole class discussion following small group work;
  • recording thoughts that can be accessed by students who miss class; and more. 

They help focus students and allow you to monitor progress. One of the dilemmas of small group work is that it is not always easy to get a good sense of how groups are progressing with an activity. With a note catcher, the real-time annotation of a shared document allows you to monitor the progress of all the groups and make informed decisions about which groups to visit. This may be particularly useful when using breakout rooms online (e.g., in Zoom) as you cannot visually scan the class to see how groups are working. 

They mitigate confusion. When using a video conferencing platform (e.g., Zoom), once students enter a breakout room, they lose the ability to see your shared screen and any instructions for the activity which might be visible in a physical classroom. A note catcher can be used to document activity instructions so that students have access to them while working. Moreover, providing a structured environment in which to work, note catchers help students focus on class activities. 

They create a record of class activity. Having a record of group work helps students who miss a class, and also can be used later as a study guide. Moreover, note catchers allow students from one group to see what another group was thinking. 

They bridge in-class and out-of-class learning. Note catchers provide an alternate venue for contributing ideas for students who might not be as comfortable speaking up in class or have to miss an in-person or synchronous class. In this way, they create a record of participation and ideas shared during a given class session.



Note catchers can come in many forms and on different platforms that allow synchronous, real time editing of documents (e.g., Google Suite, Microsoft Teams, online whiteboards, etc.). Here we provide three templates using Google Suite. Clicking on the links below will allow you to make a copy of the document for your own use. You may need to sign into your UMass Google account first. 



Assign roles. Group work in general is more effective when you assign roles to students. You may need fewer roles if students are only briefly working groups, e.g., an informal discussion or Think-Pair-Share. You can do this in a note catcher by creating spaces where students can add their names. Possible roles might include: note taker, time keeper, presenter, connector (to readings, to life experience), synthesizer, encourager, reflector, and more. For more information on assigning roles in group work, see the Washington University in St. Louis webpage on the topic. 

Keep it simple. It’s a fine line between giving clear directions and crowding up a note catcher, which can overwhelm students and delay them from getting to work. Keep your directions clear but succinct, and keep page formatting sparse and with lots of white space. The point is for students to fill in the document. 

Use the note catcher to monitor student effort in real time. Get to know the tool you are using and how you will easily “see” and access each group’s work during the class session. For example, if you use “outline view” in a Google Doc and use a heading for each group (such as “Group 1”), you will be able to easily click on group names and jump to their section of the document. This helps you determine which groups, if any, you might want to visit during small group activities. 

Link to the note catcher in your LMS. Posting a link to your class note catcher in your LMS creates an easy path for students to retrieve class activity before, during, or after class. Be sure that any sharing settings on Google Suite tools are set so that students can access the document. Have a teaching assistant or colleague test out your links. 

Encourage interaction. After a group completes their activity in the note catcher, you can ask groups to review other groups’ work and provide feedback or draw connections among the various groups, thereby developing critical capabilities and exposing students to more perspectives. Moreover, it provides you an opportunity to provide feedback in the moment so that students can self-assess their learning. It also sends a message that the group work is important and a good opportunity to try out and receive input on learning. 

What Else Should You Consider?

Internet issues. If a student needs to call into a class using their phone, they may not be able to access a shared document. Luckily, the note catcher allows students in those situations to access class activities after the fact if they need to.

Device issues. For in-person classes, students should have access to an internet-enabled device such as a computer or tablet. Online students using tablets (e.g., iPads) may not be able to access a note catcher AND video chat at the same time because tablets sometimes only run one app at a time. Students in this situation might use a phone to interact in a breakout room while using their iPad for the note catcher. It helps to give these students a verbal signal before putting them in a breakout room so they have time to call in.

Overuse. Not every activity needs a note catcher, particularly if the group work is meant to be brief and for the purpose of sharing personal information or building community. Consider what value you or the students will find in returning back to the note catcher at a later date.

Please contact the CTL with any questions or for more details about the examples shared at



Bondie, R. (2020). Practical tips for teaching online small-group discussions. ACSD Express 15(16). Retrieved from 

Center for Teaching and Learning. Assigning roles in group work. Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved from 


Two male students of color working together.

Build successful group work characterized by trust, psychological safety, clarity of expectations, and  good communication.

Person reading book in front of computer

Tackling academic dishonesty by building a culture of academic integrity and reducing both student stress and the opportunity for dishonesty.

Hands typing

Incorporating the right mix of in-class and out-of-class activities can support students’ cognitive and social needs.

Students seated in an auditorium style lecture hall.

Frequent check-ins, building in interactions, and bringing in real-world examples can help keep your students engaged in large classes.