New Findings Inform the Laptop versus Longhand Note-Taking Debate
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
Occasionally, intriguing research findings in Cognitive Psychology get picked up by the media and are blown out of proportion. This usually happens with findings that are unexpected, flashy, and suggest large practical implications. One example for this is the finding reported by Mueller and Oppenheimer (1) in 2014 (we discussed their paper here and here). Already the title of their paper was sensational “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking”. The results got immediately picked up by different media outlets and teachers used the headline to justify their decision to ban laptops from classrooms. The bold conclusion from this paper being: Students who took notes by longhand outperformed students who took notes by laptop on an immediate test covering conceptual questions. The simplified recommendation: Let’s get rid of laptops in the classroom and have everyone take notes by hand.
While there may be very good reasons to be cautious about laptop use in the classroom – e.g., laptops with internet access may invite multitasking which is detrimental to the learning of the student engaging in multi-tasking, but also has negative effects on students sitting in proximity of the multitasker (2) – their use to take notes, it turns out, is not one of them. Or, put differently, based on the existing research evidence we have no grounds to make bold recommendations for or against laptop note-taking. A recent paper by Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson (3) highlights this point. They have directly recreated the original study setup of Mueller and Oppenheimer (using the same note-taking methods and study materials) and were unable to reproduce the original finding. Let’s take a closer look.
General study setup
Participants studied a TED video and took notes either longhand or on the laptop. After 30 minutes, all participants were given a final test with factual and conceptual questions.
Participants in the longhand note-taking condition performed better on conceptual questions than participants in the laptop note-taking condition. There was no difference in performance between the two note-taking conditions on factual questions.
Participants who took laptop notes produced notes with more words in them and with a larger verbatim overlap with the video compared to the longhand participants. One idea of the original researchers was that this could explain the superiority of longhand note-taking: Longhand notes contain more paraphrased and fewer verbatim statements which is more beneficial for knowledge retention.
Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson found that participants in the longhand note-taking condition performed better on factual questions than participants in the laptop note-taking condition. There was no difference in performance between the two note-taking conditions on conceptual questions. In a second experiment they found no significant difference between longhand versus laptop note-taking on an immediate test – in fact, in this experiment they included a “no note-taking group” and found that these participants did not perform worse than participants in any of the other note-taking groups (Below, I discuss this latter finding in the context of other contributing factors that need to be taken into consideration). Thus, the results pattern directly contradicts the original findings.
In the new study, the researchers added a delayed test condition, to test if the effect would hold when participants’ knowledge is assessed two days later. In two experiments, they found that note-taking method had no effect on delayed test performance (factual + conceptual questions). Thus, on a test given two days after studying it made no difference how notes were taken.
In their second experiment the researchers allowed participants to study their notes before the delayed test and found that this further reduced differences between note-taking methods – corroborating no reliable difference between different methods.
Further, it was found that the laptop note-taking group produced more words in their notes than the longhand group and that the notes were more verbatim compared to the notes taken in the longhand group (although the latter finding was not found in their second experiment). This finding is in line with what was reported in the original paper. People can type faster than they can write by hand and this leads them to produce more words. Additionally, because of this, it is easier to capture verbatim statements from the presentation when taking notes on the laptop than when taking notes by hand.
Taken together, these recent findings show that the means by which notes are taken (longhand or laptop) seem not to matter much – and for delayed tests and when opportunities for studying the notes are given, not at all. The original explanation that a longhand-superiority may be due to the notes having less verbatim overlap does not hold because despite finding that indeed verbatim overlap is larger in laptop notes this did not lead to a reliable decrease in test performance later on.
What seems to matter more is the quality of the notes: The new study found that when the content overlap between the notes and the test questions is high this leads to higher performance. Thus, it is important that students capture ideas from the class in their notes that are later asked on the test.
Some concluding remarks
The research papers presented above used study material (TED presentations) that are pitched to entertain and present research in a light-hearted way. In educational settings, teaching looks quite different and the content will be more complex as well. Thus, the findings above may not necessarily generalize to an authentic classroom. For example, the finding that participants who did not take any notes during the presentation performed as well on an immediate test as participants who took notes may not occur with authentic material in a real classroom. In addition, it could be that the main benefit of notes is to support students’ studying after class.
The main recommendation that can be given based on the studies presented is: Make sure that the students capture the main ideas and concepts in their notes that they will need to know later on. Emphasize those ideas when you teach, ask in-class questions about those ideas (retrieval practice), and return to those ideas at different points in time (spaced practice).
A final note
Research is subject to development and change. The optimal scientific approach is one that continuously tests previous findings and ideas in order to understand them better. The aim is to obtain a full picture of a finding and not to settle too quickly. Practical recommendations can be given on basis of research findings, but should come with an awareness that tweaking and updating will be required in the future as the research field develops.
(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) Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31.
(3) Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2019) How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 1-28.