From the CRLT Blog

Student notetaking: Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

January 19, 2015
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Photo of students taking notes on laptops and notebookIs the pen mightier than the keyboard? Based on a recent study, when it comes to notetaking in class, the answer to this question might be “yes.” In their 2014 article on student notetaking, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer compared students who took handwritten notes with those who used a laptop. Their findings, which held over several different experimental settings, indicate that longhand notes lead to better learning. (U-M users can get the full article here.)

In tests given immediately after a lecture, recall of factual information was equal for both modes of notetaking. However, students remembered significantly greater amounts of conceptual information after taking handwritten notes. When tests were delayed by a week (a situation that more closely mirrors a classroom setting), the hand-writers performed significantly better on both factual and conceptual test questions.

Mueller and Oppenheimer explain that, although laptop notetakers record significantly more words, they do so in a verbatim fashion, without much cognitive processing. Those who write by hand can record fewer words and therefore must synthesize and summarize, rather than simply transcribe, the lecture. When tests occur immediately, capturing a large amount of verbatim information leads to good factual recall, but less ability to retain concepts. However, the shallow processing that characterizes laptop notetaking seems to be detrimental in the long run for both factual and conceptual recall.

These findings could well be counterintuitive for students who feel better able to follow lectures by typing notes. Especially given the large body of research showing the power of technology to distract students, instructors might want to proactively help students maximize the usefulness of technology while minimizing its potentially negative effects. Here are some suggestions:

  • Explain this research and encourage those students who can to take handwritten notes. Keep in mind that for some students with disabilities, laptops provide an important accommodation that assists their learning. But even if some students need to take notes using a computer, all students can benefit from understanding the limits of verbatim notetaking.

  • To interrupt verbatim notetaking on laptops, break up your lectures with short activities that encourage deeper processing of information. This might include exercises during which students must sort out more important information in their own words, either individually in a minute paper or with a peer using a think-pair-share activity.

  • Have students use laptops or other technologies to process--not just record--information. This might include specific programs for encouraging questions (e.g., Twitter, Piazza, or Lecture Tools) or online collaboration tools that can record student responses in group activities (here's an example of a U-M professor who uses google docs in this way). For lots of reasons, many of your students may not have laptops with them in class. To maintain an inclusive environment, remember to set up activities in ways that provide laptop-free alternatives or group several students with one machine. 

  • Have laptop- (or technology-) free times, especially for material that might be conceptually difficult. After explaining and discussing the material, give students time when they can use laptops (or their preferred notetaking method) to record what they remember.

  • Given the potential for distraction, develop clear policies for when and how students may use laptops in your class and write them into your syllabus so that students are aware of them from the very start of the term. This blog post outlines some considerations in choosing your classroom technology policy.  

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