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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s important to note that most of the studies that have compared note taking by hand versus laptop have used immediate memory tests administered very shortly (typically less than an hour) after the learning session. In real classroom settings, however, students are often assessed days if not weeks after learning new material. Thus, although laptop users may not encode as much during the lecture and thus may be disadvantaged on immediate assessments, it seems reasonable to expect that the additional information they record will give them an advantage when reviewing material after a long delay.
Wrong again. Mueller and Oppenheimer included a study in which participants were asked to take notes by hand or by laptop, and were told they would be tested on the material in a week. When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants. Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session.