With the proliferation of technology in the 21st century, the idea of writing something down using a pen or pencil can feel as antiquated and old-fashioned as using a home phone. But recent research has shown that when it comes to taking notes, choosing a keyboard over a pen and paper may be doing more harm than good.
In 2014, Pam Mueller, a teaching assistant at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Robert Oppenheimer, a professor at the same school, both found themselves in situations that made them question how effective taking notes by hands might be compared to using a computer. Inspired by personal observations, they decided to run some experiments to test their idea.
In the first experiment, a group of students from Princeton University was asked to take notes while watching some TED talks. They were then taken to a lab where they “completed two 5-min distractor tasks and engaged in a taxing working memory task.” After this—and about 30 minutes after they had watched the TED talks—the participants were asked both factual and conceptual questions about what they watched.
The results showed that for factual-based questions, those who took notes with a laptop did equally well as those who took notes by hand. However, when it came to conceptual questions, those who took notes by hand fared much better.
During the first experiment, researchers noted that laptop users were much more likely to take notes word-for-word compared to their handwriting counterparts who had to decide what was worth writing down and what could be ignored.
To test this difference, researchers worked with a separate group at UCLA. This study was similar to the first, except this time around, laptop users were randomly split into two groups. The first laptop group was told to take notes normally as if they were going to be tested on the material later on. The second laptop group was given the same instructions instructions, but were also told:
“People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.”
The idea was that if laptop note takers were warned beforehand about the problem with taking verbatim notes, they would take more conscientious notes like the handwriters do and, thus, perform better on the test. However, when results from all three groups were analyzed, what researchers found mirrored what they found in the first test: even with a fair warning ahead of time, laptop note takers still performed worse than handwriters on conceptual-based questions.
In the final experiment, another group of UCLA students was asked to watch a lecture and take notes either by hand or computer, this time with the knowledge that they would have to come back in a week to be tested on the material. When students showed up one week later, some were given 10 minutes to review their notes—which were either handwritten or typed—while the others started the test right away.
Across all combinations of note taking methods, studiers and non-studiers, researchers found that those who took notes by hand and were allowed to study before taking the test performed better than all other groups, including those who were able to study their typed notes. Interestingly, handwriters and typers who were not allowed to study their notes both performed poorly, a result that researchers associated with the difficulty to recall test material after a one week delay regardless of note-taking method.
Analysis of these three experiments led researchers to conclude an important difference in the choice of note-taking device. Since typing on a keyboard is a generally fast process, laptop notetakers were able to take essentially word-for-word notes. Meanwhile, those who took notes by hand, in order to keep up with the lecturer, had to process incoming information so they could write down only what they felt was important.
The researchers proposed that the state of processing and filtering information as it comes in—a process that is skipped with keyboard typing—allowed handwriters to learn better, retain more knowledge, and perform better come exam time.