A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop

Students who used longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material
hand writing
“More is better.”  From the number of gigs in a cellular data plan to the horsepower in a pickup truck, this mantra is ubiquitous in American culture. When it comes to college students, the belief that more is better may underlie their widely-held view that laptops in the classroom enhance their academic performance. Laptops do in fact allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, collaborate more easily on papers and projects, access information from the internet, and take more notes. Indeed, because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write out their notes by hand.  Moreover, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor.

Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date. Only it isn’t. New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand. As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

What drives this paradoxical finding? Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.

To evaluate this theory, Mueller and Oppenheimer assessed the content of notes taken by hand versus laptop. Their studies included hundreds of students from Princeton and UCLA, and the lecture topics ranged from bats, bread, and algorithms to faith, respiration, and economics. Content analysis of the notes consistently showed that students who used laptops had more verbatim transcription of the lecture material than those who wrote notes by hand. Moreover, high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material. It appears that students who use laptops can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion, with little analysis or synthesis by the brain. This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote a meaningful understanding or application of the information.

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