Closeup shot of a young man writing on a note pad

Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Walk into any university lecture hall and you’re likely to see row upon row of students sitting behind glowing laptop screens. Laptops in class have been controversial, due mostly to the many opportunities for distraction that they provide (online shopping, browsing Reddit, or playing solitaire, just to name a few). But few studies have examined how effective laptops are for the students who diligently take notes.

“Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended — and not for buying things on Amazon during class — they may still be harming academic performance,” says psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University, lead author of the study.

Mueller was prompted to investigate the question after her own experience of switching from laptop to pen and paper as a graduate teaching assistant:

“I felt like I’d gotten so much more out of the lecture that day,” says Mueller, who was working with psychology researcher Daniel Oppenheimer at the time. “Danny said that he’d had a related experience in a faculty meeting: He was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realized that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer, who is now at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, conducted a series of studies to investigate whether their intuitions about laptop and longhand note-taking were true.

In the first study, 65 college students watched one of five TED Talks covering topics that were interesting but not common knowledge. The students, who watched the talks in small groups, were either given laptops (disconnected from Internet) or notebooks, and were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes.

The students then completed three distractor tasks, including a taxing working memory task. A full 30 minutes later, they had to answer factual-recall questions (e.g., “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?”) and conceptual-application questions (e.g., “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”) based on the lecture they had watched.

The results revealed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions.

The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand. Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.”

“It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently,” the researchers write.

Surprisingly, the researchers saw similar results even when they explicitly instructed the students to avoid taking verbatim notes, suggesting that the urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome.

The researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later when participants were given a chance to review their notes before taking the recall test. Once again, the amount of verbatim overlap was associated with worse performance on conceptual items.

“I don’t anticipate that we’ll get a mass of people switching back to notebooks,” says Mueller, “but there are several new stylus technologies out there, and those may be the way to go to have an electronic record of one’s notes, while also having the benefit of being forced to process information as it comes in, rather than mindlessly transcribing it.”

“Ultimately, the take-home message is that people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy,” Mueller concludes.

Comments

As a pre-technology student and a busy working mother who was always forgetting the list I’d written, I’ve always known that writing something down is akin to writing it on the brain,

But, lots of luck convincing today’s younger students who believe they know best. After all, they’re so special they were given stars, trophies and awards just for showing up, permitted to earn a misleading GPA higher than 4.0 ’cause the grading system is so much easier, and permitted to be valedictorian, the best along with 72 other students, each of whom are also the best…as if that could ever make sense

So, naturally, they believe, as tech-era kids, they have a special gift for multi-tasking, yet they lack the cognitive ability to conduct an in-depth analysis of that concept that would reveal what the studies at Stanford have shown — that there’s really no such thing ’cause you can’t really do two things simultaneously, and when we try, one of the two tasks will lack quality.

This should be a heads-up for proponents of digital learning. Some of the old methodologies will always be better than learning with a keyboard and screen, because the claims that it can revolutionize education are no more valid than Thomas Edison’s claim in 1922 that motion pictures would do so and no more valid than the same claims about radio and TV.

I usually write everything down using pen and paper.

I’m an older adult (58) and I’ve been working in IT for about 25 years. I agree that writing leads to better retention than typing but … I now write on a tablet which captures and saves my work. I can also use character recognition to transcribe my notes. So I find I get the technological benefits of a computer with the human benefits of writing by using a stylus and touch screen tablet. Best of both worlds? Has anyone studied tablets?

Great article – just about to take up a course of study and wondered if I should get into the 21st Century by taking notes on my laptop. This has helped me in making the decision to stick to taking notes by hand and subsequently have found a couple a really nice blank notebooks to use during my course.

In college I took notes by hand as fast as I could. I would stay up very late at night transcribing them to make them more legible. Studying before mid-terms and finals was much easier, and I did very well (graduated with honors). In graduate school, I already knew how to process the information to take notes effectively. This worked out well too–completed a Ph.D. and an MBA.

I think this was true if we take notes on laptops we would never take the time to go over them as if we were to take them on paper

Working as a clinical psychologist in a hospital (I’m now retired) I had always used pen and paper to take interview notes, even as come colleagues were beginning to use laptops to do the same. I type faster than I write (especially if I try to write legibly), but the cognitive process is different. It is easier to engage with an interviewee while holding a pen than it is when ‘tending’ a computer. The same could be said about taking notes in lectures. I feel that the process of writing by hand provides an improved level of learning and analysis. The information is ‘digested’ rather than merely recorded.

My contention is dependent on my experience as a student, of course. Had I grown up with computers in my classrooms and lecture halls perhaps I wouldn’t make this assertion.

This research report is good guidance, but many variables would have to be included for a more definitive statement. A student’s learning history and style, as well the subject matter of the lecture would have to be assessed.

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