How Should Students Take Notes?
This blog originally written for and appeared on The Learning Agency Blog.
By Megan Sumeracki
Summary: Taking notes by hand seems to be better than taking notes using a laptop because it requires students to put the notes into their own words. However, the research is nuanced! It is important to remember, too, that if laptops are creating distractions learning will suffer.
The options for technology in the classroom have exploded in the 21st century. We can use clickers in our classrooms, smartphone and tablet quizzing apps, online course management systems, smartboards, and probably about 100 other things that I haven’t even heard of. But one question that continues to pop up is whether students should use technology to take notes.
Personally, I have witnessed a number of college students with laptops and tablets taking notes in my own classes. With students often bringing their own technology, such as laptops, tablets, and phones that have note capabilities, into the classroom, it is no wonder that many choose to take notes with these devices. On the surface, it seems as though the medium through which students take notes should not matter. Taking notes is taking notes, right?
Taking Notes by Hand may be Better Than on a Computer
Research, however, shows the answer is not so simple. Mueller and Oppenheimer (1) investigated learning after taking notes by hand or taking notes on laptop computers. The computers in their experiments were all disconnected from the internet to eliminate distraction. In Mueller and Oppenheimer’s experiments, students were assigned to either take notes by hand or to take notes using a laptop while watching recorded TED talks. Then participants answered factual and conceptual questions about what they just learned.
In their first experiment, taking notes by hand led to greater performance on the conceptual questions relative to taking notes on the laptop computers. Those who took notes using the laptop computer were essentially transcribing the TED talks during note-taking. The researchers noted that when students have to take notes by hand, they are forced to put the information into their own words and decide what is most important due to limitations in writing speed. We typically can type much faster than we can write, and so when typing notes, it is much easier to simply type everything. Writing notes by hand encourages processing of the information that is good for learning.
To address this, Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted another experiment. In this experiment, some of the students who were typing their notes were given explicit instructions; students in this group were told not to transcribe what they were hearing, and were asked to put the notes into their own words. The special instructions reduced some of the transcribing during note-taking compared to the “normal” typing group; however, they still wrote more content than those who were taking notes by hand. On the assessment, the group who took their notes by hand performed the best.
Not so Fast! The Research on Note-taking is Nuanced
So, up to this point, it appears that taking notes by hand is better for learning than taking notes on the computer. However, if we dig into more of the research, we find that the story may be more nuanced – as it almost always seems to be! For example, in some of their experiments Mueller and Oppenheimer did not find benefits of taking notes by hand on factual questions. In their third experiment, Mueller and Oppenheimer found that those who took notes by hand performed better than those who used a laptop on both factual and conceptual questions, but only when they were able to study their notes after note-taking this time. There was no difference between note-taking conditions when students were not permitted to restudy their notes. Bui, Myerson, and Hale (2) found in one of their studies that taking transcription notes using a laptop led to better performance on factual questions later on compared to taking organized notes by hand, or trying to transcribe by hand, at least when the assessment was taken soon after taking the notes. Fiorella and Mayer (3) compared taking notes by hand and taking notes on a laptop during learning, and then let the students study their notes. On a test to assess learning, all of the participants answered questions about factual information, questions that required transfer to new situations, and drawing questions. They found that that those who took notes on a laptop performed better than those who took notes by hand!
To try to understand all of these differing results, Luo, Kiewra, Flanigan, and Peteranetz (4) conducted an experiment during which students watched a lecture related to an actual college course they were taking. Students either took notes on a laptop or by hand during a lecture. Some students were then given the opportunity to review their notes before an assessment test. This created four conditions (laptop no review, laptop with review, longhand no review, longhand with review). During the assessment, the researchers measured learning on text content and on visual content.
The researchers found an interaction, which means that the effect of note-taking medium depended on whether students had an opportunity to review their notes before the assessment. When the students had the opportunity to review their notes, they generally performed better on the assessment if they took notes by hand than by a laptop. This was especially true on the visual component of the assessment. However, when they were not able to review their notes, the two methods of taking notes led to very similar performance. Those who took notes with the laptop performed slightly better than those who took notes by hand, but these differences are not statistically significant.
What Does All of This Mean?
The effect of taking notes on the computer versus by hand seems to depend on a number of factors, including whether students have opportunities to restudy the content through their notes, the content of the material being learned (e.g., visual or verbal information), and how long we want learning to last (or delay). There appear to be more experiments favoring taking notes by hand than using a laptop. This seems to be especially true when students need to learn visual information, or are asked to answer conceptual questions.
All of this being said, it is extremely important to remember that students in these experiments were disconnected from the internet, and thus distractions from their email or social media were completely eliminated. If we introduced distractions from email or social media into the mix, learning would almost certainly go down for the typing group (see Five Teaching and Learning Myths by Brown & Kaminske (5)). As much as we may try to reduce tech distractions in the classroom, complete elimination of this type of distraction is not always possible in real life learning situations. Thus, taking notes by hand may still be the way to go!
(1) 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.
(2) Bui, D. C., Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (2013). Note-taking with computers: Exploring alternative strategies for improved recall. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105, 299-309.
(3) Fiorella, L., & Mayer, R. E. (2017). Spontaneous spatial strategy use in learning from scientific text. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 49, 66-79.
(4) Luo, L., Kiewra, K. A., Flanigan, A. E., & Peteranetz, M. S. (2018). Laptop versus longhand note taking: Effects on lecture notes and achievement. Instructional Science, 46, 947-971.
(5) Brown, A. M., & Kaminske, A. N. (2018). Five teaching and learning myths debunked: A guide for teachers. New York: Routledge.