Getting (and Keeping) It Together with OneNote

Branden Kirchmeyer, Sojo University

I am a neat freak: Shirts hang in my closet according to the visible spectrum, and my television volume is always adjusted to even numbers. But the realm in which I most enjoy establishing and maintaining order is my professional environment. It is no secret that organization plays a crucial role in the lives of teachers and students—units must be planned, resources assembled, research conducted, manuscripts drafted, conferences attended—all of which require gathering, analyzing, and recalling information. Navigating the accumulated nebula of information can test even the most fastidious record keeper. Fortunately, technology has provided a few gifts and this article will introduce my personal favorite tool for staying organized, Microsoft’s OneNote.

The Basics

Free for everyone and available for every platform, OneNote combines the tried-and-tested organizational layout of a physical notebook with the functionality of other MS Office products such as Word and PowerPoint. Several versions exist, the most extensive of which being OneNote 2016 for Windows, which is bundled with the MS Office suite and included in the cost of that package. Alternatively, the standard OneNote app boasts an impressive range of functionality and is available for free through the Windows App Store, Google Play Store, and iTunes Store.

Those familiar with any of the Microsoft Office products will soon recognize the familiar ribbon at the top, where one can change input styles, add bullets and numbering, insert multimedia, link to resources both within and outside the notebook, and draw shapes or figures. All of these tools are also readily accessible in the iOS and Android mobile versions. In addition, the ability to sync and share notebooks across platforms and devices empowers users with mobility and connectivity. The focus of this article is OneNote’s central feature: its organizational structure. This article will explain how teachers can use this tool for instructional planning, research, and professional development.

Instructional Planning

OneNote is structured simply and intuitively, like a book or a website. Each level is only a click away, and teachers can even cycle between their favorite notebooks without the need to exit the application. For each course I teach, I create a new notebook with the course year and name as the filename (I actually duplicate similar courses from prior terms to save time). Within this course notebook (see Figure 1) I have several sections including Course Plan and Lessons. The Course Plan section contains pages titled Course Outline and Class Schedule, and the Lessons section has a page for each lesson of the course, containing lesson plans, teaching notes, and content: both actual files and links to outside sources. The section titled Student Information contains data and notes on individual students, which has proven useful for recordkeeping, lesson differentiation, and disciplinary measures.

Gathering content for lessons is a cinch using the Insert tab on the ribbon. As shown in Figure 1, content can be externally linked (such as the PowerPoint file under the Materials heading), internally linked (the “basic class materials” hyperlink under the Materials heading connects to a page in the Course Information section), or embedded straight into the notebook (such as the video). One very useful feature of embedded content is that when copying media or text from a website onto a page in OneNote, the object’s URL is automatically appended to the content as an appropriately named caption. Furthermore, content can be added straight from web browsers or device cameras with OneNote extensions. 


Keeping research projects organized can be challenging, and writing reports is even more so. Organizing with OneNote has allowed me to keep much better track of progress through the different phases of research. Possibly the most time-saving aspect of OneNote is the ease in which data can be collected, analyzed, and commented on by all members of a research team, who can use OneNote to jointly work on research or manuscripts. Collaboration is made simple with the sharing button, which allows you to add an author, share a link, or send copies of notebooks.

Figure 2 shows one of my notebooks set up for a research project that I am currently conducting with a colleague. The screenshot shows that some content has been added by my colleague (flagged with HK), and other content by me (unmarked here, indicated with BK in my colleague’s version of the notebook). Another helpful aspect of OneNote for research is the ability to add tags, which can be customized and used to mark tasks, unanswered questions, and important ideas. A beneficial extension for MS Office users is that tasks marked in OneNote can be displayed in Outlook with options for setting notifications and reminders. 

Professional Development

The first time I started using OneNote was to take notes during a presentation at a conference. From there my Professional Development Notebook (see Figure 3) has blossomed into a complete archive of every conference, training session, online course, and webinar I have ever attended. This notebook allows me to effortlessly disseminate relevant information to my colleagues and administrators, either by sharing a page of notes on a particular presentation, or by linking a page from this notebook to a page in the aforementioned research notebook so that my colleagues and I can both refer to it later. 

In a separate but related notebook that I call my Teaching Notebook, I have been steadily accumulating a personal handbook for language teaching. When I read an educational publication, I always have this notebook open and ready to note down new activity ideas, unfamiliar terms, and quotations I might find useful in the future. Oftentimes I come across a figure or a table that I’d like to retrieve in the future, so I snap a picture of it. Within three taps, I can have this image saved onto the page of my choice in the notebook of my choice, and an amazing function of OneNote allows any text within that image to automatically become a searchable part of the notebook. 

Other Uses for OneNote

The examples provided above are by no means an exhaustive list of the different ways one could use OneNote to organize a professional environment, nor have I mentioned all of the features that make OneNote a must-have program for teachers. Some other purposes I use notebooks for include: 

  • planning, drafting, and indexing my publications, 
  • planning my university’s annual conference, the Sojo University Teaching & Learning Forum, and
  • keeping historical records of all my students.

Other beneficial features of OneNote include add-ins and extensions developed for integration with other productivity tools such as Chrome and EndNote, official Microsoft templates streamlined for class management (e.g. Class Notebooks), and integration with learning management systems such as Moodle.

Whether you’re a neat freak like me, a disheveled genius, or something in between, OneNote can help organize personal and professional data. If you would like to learn more about using OneNote for your professional environment, consider attending my TnT workshop on this topic at the JALT International Conference 2017 in Tsukuba. 


Editor’s Note:  This column has shared one of the many tech tools available to help teachers organize their personal and professional lives. Visit the Technology in Teaching (TnT) workshops and the CALL SIG Forum at JALT2017 in Tsukuba for more tips and tools to help you keep your classes Wired!