Take notes by hand for better long-term comprehension

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Walk into any university lecture hall and you’re likely to see row upon row of students sitting behind glowing laptop screens. Laptops in class have been controversial, due mostly to the many opportunities for distraction that they provide (online shopping, browsing Reddit, or playing solitaire, just to name a few). But few studies have examined how effective laptops are for the students who diligently take notes.

“Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended — and not for buying things on Amazon during class — they may still be harming academic performance,” says psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University, lead author of the study.

This is a photo of a student taking notes by hand.Mueller was prompted to investigate the question after her own experience of switching from laptop to pen and paper as a graduate teaching assistant:

“I felt like I’d gotten so much more out of the lecture that day,” says Mueller, who was working with psychology researcher Daniel Oppenheimer at the time. “Danny said that he’d had a related experience in a faculty meeting: He was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realized that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer, who is now at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, conducted a series of studies to investigate whether their intuitions about laptop and longhand note-taking were true.

In the first study, 65 college students watched one of five TED Talks covering topics that were interesting but not common knowledge. The students, who watched the talks in small groups, were either given laptops (disconnected from Internet) or notebooks, and were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes.

The students then completed three distractor tasks, including a taxing working memory task. A full 30 minutes later, they had to answer factual-recall questions (e.g., “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?”) and conceptual-application questions (e.g., “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”) based on the lecture they had watched.

The results revealed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions.

The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand. Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.”

“It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently,” the researchers write.

Surprisingly, the researchers saw similar results even when they explicitly instructed the students to avoid taking verbatim notes, suggesting that the urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome.

The researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later when participants were given a chance to review their notes before taking the recall test. Once again, the amount of verbatim overlap was associated with worse performance on conceptual items.

“I don’t anticipate that we’ll get a mass of people switching back to notebooks,” says Mueller, “but there are several new stylus technologies out there, and those may be the way to go to have an electronic record of one’s notes, while also having the benefit of being forced to process information as it comes in, rather than mindlessly transcribing it.”

“Ultimately, the take-home message is that people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy,” Mueller concludes.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.

64 thoughts on “Take notes by hand for better long-term comprehension”

  1. I completely agree with the article. From personal experience I have found that when I take notes on my laptop I never really grasp what the lecture is about as I am so busy typing what is being said. The entire typing process takes much longer than actual writing. Note taking by paper is much more practical and faster since you can use keywords and any technique to bring concepts together. This is however a little more difficult when trying to find the correct format, or font colour while typing all the while trying to keep track of what is being said. Thus it makes sense that note taking by a laptop could cause a distraction in attention, whereas with actual writing it happens straight forward.

  2. I completely agree with this statement. Everything is so easy these days, with the push of just a few buttons you can get information about almost everything, watch videos, book a ticket and even do shopping. most of these things is positive and helps us to complete our work quicker and easier, but it can also have a negative effect. I sit in class everyday and I see more people using laptops and tablets and iPads for taking notes. I type a lot faster than I write, but still I prefer to use a notepad and pen in class because, there are so many things that distract me on the laptop that I only copy what the lecturer say, and not listening and summarizing the lecture. When you write something down you listen, take the information in and quickly write it down in a shorter way, when you type, the information goes in through the one ear and out the other. I know it is impractical at university to hand in every assignment for every subject in hard copy, but I find it much better to do homework in a book or something rather than on a computer. When doing online homework and assignments you always lose time, because the program is loading, or you have technical problems and at eventually it takes hours, and then I remember more from the homework I literally did in my book than the online stuff. I know that technology is a big part of our world, and it is only getting bigger, I just think that we should remember that sometimes it is better to do things old fashioned and that there is not a short cut for everything.

  3. I agree with the facts stated in this article. Take for instance students in one of my classes, I notice several students playing games such as candy crush, minesweeper or FIFA while the lecturer is speaking. It is very evident most times that they are no longer paying attention at all. Sometimes they actually attend the lecture with the intention of playing games in some cases because they have concluded that the lecturer is “boring” or they have “read ahead”.

    Taking notes with a pen and paper is more effective and beneficial because there aren’t so many distractions and in my opinion, you are more aware of your mistakes. It is also better because most students in the majority of cases when taking notes have a photographic memory and remember what and where they write. Writing is a much more constructive method for long term memory.

  4. We are such a privileged generation because of how life is made so much easier and convenient for us .Technology makes everything faster and easily accessible. However beneficial it is to have these luxuries ,they have become necessities to most of us. People cannot survive without a cell phone or study without having a laptop . At university one cannot complete your studies just by normal written class tests and class exams. You are required to do online assignment and get study notes via the internet .We are made used to using technology continuously. Due to its acceptability and the multiple ways of study options provided by technology , technology also has many beneficial aspects to it. If one does not understand the given work there are an endless amount of tutorials on the internet to help. However I do agree that hand written notes are the best to retain information .It is a great method to remember what has been said in class and this personalized form of note taking is beneficial to most. The art of note taking is just great .However combining the two and using both methods (of hand written notes and technological notes)could increase the effectiveness of your studying and your usage of the resources available to you.

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