How to Take Good Notes: Go Low-Tech

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More and more students are opting to take notes on laptops to save trees and – they assume – take better notes. But is this assumption correct? According to the findings UCLA’s Dr. Danny Oppenheimer recently published in Psychological Science , these students are wrong: in a study of note-taking comparing handwritten to typed notes, Meuller and Oppenheimer (2014) found that students who took notes the old-fashioned way, by hand, did better  on a test than students who typed their notes on a laptop.

College-student participants were instructed to take notes like they would in class, as they viewed and took notes on short lectures. Half of the participants were assigned to take notes by hand; the other half typed notes on internet-disabled laptops. (Prior research has demonstrated that internet access and all its distractions – email, facebook, etc. – interferes with learning. By preventing internet use in this study, the researchers ruled out the distraction explanation for differences between the laptop group and the handwritten-notes group.) After a delay, students were tested on both facts and concepts. Factual questions, such as "What is the purpose of adding calcium propionate to bread?", simply asked students to recall a piece of information from the lecture. In contrast, conceptual questions, like "If a person’s epiglottis was not working properly, what would be likely to happen?", required students to think more deeply and use the information in some way (Meuller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

Students in laptop group took more notes total and also got down more of the lectures word-for-word than students in the handwritten-notes group, because most people can type faster than they can write by hand. Students in general are aware that typed notes contain the information in a lecture more fully and exactly. If you believe that having more complete information in your notes translates to higher test scores, then typing your notes would be an excellent strategy.

However, despite the fact that the laptop group in the study had arguably "better" notes, they did worse on the test! Even when students in the study were allowed to study their notes, the laptop group still scored lower overall than the handwritten-notes group. Students doing both styles of note-taking did equally well on factual questions, but the laptop groups did worse than the handwritten-notes groups on the conceptual questions.

At this point, you might be concerned that all of your intuitions about note-taking and learning are wrong. The researchers not only analyzed test scores, but also the notes taken by students in their study, and found evidence that taking more notes did predict higher test scores in both groups. Paying attention and getting more of the ideas of the lectures did help students do well. Yet if your instinct is to take down every word, the evidence is that this is reducing your learning. Students whose notes were more verbatim scored lower, and this was especially true for the laptop group because their faster note-taking rate enabled them to note a higher percentage of the lecture word-for-word. But even students in the handwritten-notes group that took more verbatim notes scored lower on the test. The researchers confirmed these findings through fitting a model in which word count and percent of notes verbatim moderated the relationship between note-taking method (by hand, typed) and test performance. (See this post for information on moderation models.)

Why did taking more verbatim notes hurt the test performance of the laptop group? The researchers cited the large research literature on learning and memory, which shows that doing something actively with information – like deciding what is important enough to write down, or putting it into your own words – increases learning and memory for studied material, by forcing you to think more deeply and create more connections to other things you know. Because the students who typed their notes could take notes faster than those who wrote by hand, the laptop-using students were not forced to actively process the lectures as much as their peers who used the low-tech pen and paper method.

So if you are a student and want to learn more and do well in your classes, take your notes by hand, remembering, as the researchers put it in their paper title, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard” (Meuller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581