Educators are eager to know how the computers popping up in their classrooms actually affect student learning. Much of the research has focused on how computers and other digital devices increase the temptation and likelihood of multitasking, leading to lower comprehension and reduced productivity. But until now, few people have looked into whether the method of note-taking a student uses, such as typing on a computer or writing in longhand, affects how well he or she comprehends the lecture.

A recent study published in Psychological Science confronts the issue head-on. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer asked students to take notes on a 20-minute video lecture using either longhand or a computer that had been disabled for any other use. They wanted to remove the distractions that have given note-taking on computers lower marks for memory and comprehension. “Even if you are using computers exactly as they’re supposed to be used, might that still be hurting learning?” is the question Mueller sought out to answer.

Mueller said she got the idea for the experiment when she was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class and forgot to bring her computer one day. She took notes by hand instead and felt a noticeable difference in her retention of the material. The experience made her wonder if others would react the same way.

The two researchers set up three studies to test various conditions. In the first study, one group of undergraduate college students were told to watch a 20-minute TED Talk on a subject they weren’t likely to know much about and take notes by hand. The other group took notes on the computer.

“Students who took notes on laptops tended to transcribe the content verbatim,” Mueller said. Those students took many more notes, but seemed to process what they heard much less. In a test taken a few minutes after completing the lecture, students who had taken notes using longhand performed much better. The difference was particularly striking on conceptual questions, where students had to take two pieces of information they’d heard in the lecture and synthesize them into a conclusion.

The researchers then tested another intervention, telling a third group of students taking notes on a computer that verbatim notes aren’t a good way to remember and that they should slow down. The other two groups remained the same as in the first study. The intervention group performed almost exactly the same as the computer note-takers who hadn’t received the intervention, leading Mueller and Oppenheimer to believe that simply telling students not to take notes verbatim doesn’t work.

Since the verbatim note-takers were recording more information than those taking longhand notes, Mueller reasoned that maybe that group would do better if given a chance to study their notes. So in a third study, the researchers asked both groups of note-takers to come back a week later, review their notes for 15 minutes and then take the test.

To Mueller’s surprise, the longhand note-takers still performed better. She also hypothesizes that since longhand note takers had to be more selective about what they wrote, they had processed the information better as it came in, making the recall easier.

These findings align with neuroscience research on memory reconsolidation. When information is called up into the short term memory after having been hardwired into the long term memory, it sticks better the second time.

“If you processed [the information] as it was coming in, then there’s more in your brain for the refresher to hang on to,” Mueller said.

Making it Stick in the Classroom

The typing versus handwriting debate recalls a related, heated discussion over whether students should continue to learn handwriting. While the research is not conclusive, several researchers contend that writing by hand stimulates special neural circuits, leading to stronger reading ability, new idea generation and retention of information.

Mueller thinks there’s still hope for digital note-taking, but says students must be taught how to slow down and process information as they take it in. She thinks there could be promise in stylus technology, which would slow the pace at which a person can take notes, but would still allow for digital storage.

Some educators are taking long form notes to new levels, embracing the idea of sketchnotes, in which the ideas presented in a lecture are captured as a combination of words and images.

“I sat through two 45-minute lectures in high school social studies and not only was I super focused because I was doodling, I could also basically give the lecture afterwards,” said Shelley Paul, who at the time was director of learning design at Woodward Academy. “And if I look at the doodle again today for three to four minutes, I can basically remember it all again.”

Paul admits it can be hard to keep up with a fast paced lecture, but even the things she decides not to depict end up getting connected to the images she does draw. She’s been implementing the practice with students who love the freedom to doodle in class and who are making great connections between information in the process.

While unconventional, drawing as note-taking makes sense based on memory research, which shows that if multiple ideas can be condensed into an image, the brain stores all those related ideas as one. The image acts as a zip file for multiple ideas, helping to fit more into the limited short term memory.

Taking Notes: Is The Pen Still Mightier Than the Keyboard? 22 August,2015Katrina Schwartz

  • Some other research studies show benefits of taking notes on computer when the students have time to study, as described in this article:

    • Robert Altman

      My guess is you are not a high school teacher. No, My experience of 24 years in the classroom allows me to say use PAPER AND PEN…Retention is much better and comprehension is aided by the process. There is to much going on otherwise.

      • Hi Robert – It sounds like you’ve tried having students take notes via laptop/tablet (or perhaps you gave them choice of note taking tools?), but it didn’t work out very well in your class. Can you say a little more about what happened?

  • Matt Seitz

    I’m confused by the comparison to a “zip drive”. Did you mean a “zip file”, because a “zip file” is compressed and can contain multiple kinds of data?

    There was an old, short lived storage device called a “Zip drive”. But unlike a zip file, I don’t remember a Zip drive providing any kind of special data compression.

    • Ki Sung

      Thanks for the catch, Matt! We made the fix to “zip file.”

  • jlrepka

    Reading notes you’ve typed into a WP is visually similar to reading a textbook. There’s information but there’s little personal connection. Notes in your own handwriting, with doodles and such, triggers more of brain, reminding you of where you were when you wrote this, what the room smelled of, who you were sitting next to, etc.

    More important is reviewing notes afterward, preferably within 24-48 hours, and re-writing them while concentrating on the main points of the lecture. It’s the reviewing that sets the concepts in your memory or, at a minimum, brings into relief the things that you still don’t quite get — allowing you to formulate intelligent questions…

    • Ann McCloskey

      Excellent, research supported, points. I teach at a college for students with learning disabilities so I keep up with this stuff. Thanks for your post.

  • gracewalker2

    While I’d love to take notes long hand arthritis simply makes my writing slower and causes me to grapple with correcting my penmanship. If I didn’t correct it, the notes would be senseless. There are some techniques that I use to make my notes more personalized. Such as, setting up a template before the class and then I can – format and organize facts on the page, assign highlight colors to certain topics, bold and underline particular information, assign code words and acronyms to some items like – TQ, which means Test Question; RW, means ReWrite for my better understanding; and RS, means further ReSearch is needed in the textbook or other places. I also utilize TS, means TimeStamp of the recording that I’m making of the session. Since the recording is done directly in my note taking software I can see the exact time of the professor’s comment. In my notes I notate that time next to my notes. Having the recorded session and my notes takes some of the guesswork out of preparing for a final exam.

  • Kelly West

    I think they took the reason for having the device out of the equation. Devices in the classroom aren’t meant to simply replace another way of doing something. They should be used to move beyond pencil and paper. What would have happened if the group was allowed to use the web while listening to the lecture? Maybe they include hyperlinks to sites that clarify the topic or relate to the real world. Maybe they bookmark a video to watch later. Perhaps the speaker starts a back channel and students pose questions and leave comments during the lecture. I wonder what the outcome would be vs. the pen and paper/non device group?

    • Liz

      I think it would be the worst test performance yet. What you describe sounds like a nightmare to me. Students are being presented all the pertinent information they need during the lecture. That’s the point of a lecture: to convey all the pertinent information on a topic. If they’re googling, hyperlinking, commenting, reading comments, bookmarking videos, etc. as you describe, then how on earth are they supposed to pay attention to the lecture itself, which is the core body of information they need to receive?

      Students are OVERWHELMED with information right now. This hinders the learning process. My major challenge as an educator is to present material simply so that my students can focus and learn. Learning happens when you can block out extraneous information and really concentrate on what matters. How is this supposed to happen amid mid-lecture online commentary, video bookmarking, etc? I hear you saying “but the connections to real life!” “the supplementary material!” “the different modalities for various learning styles!” These are all great, but first, FIRST there must be the material itself. Presented simply. Then, if understanding isn’t there, send them home to watch a video (and, btw, see how many actually watch it).

  • Chuckle

    I was brought here when this was posted the my classes Canvas page by my professor. I appreciate the research and this point of view however I think that there are plenty exceptions to the findings. I am one of them. My handwriting is atrocious when I try to write fast. While in class I find myself having to choose whether to write slower for legibility’s sake or to write fast. When I write slower its legible but I find that I leave out important information . When I write fast I find that I can’t read a lot of it when I go over my notes days later. Having to ask the professor to back up multiple times doesn’t seem fair to the rest of the class so typing my notes works for me and I found that I have been far more successful with exams when I have typed notes to review versus trying to decipher my handwritten “chicken scratch”. I think fighting the temptation to multi-task is a separate issue. The people who have trouble focusing or who deliberately do unrelated things with their laptops during class ruin it for those of us that benefit from typing our notes. I am looking forward to discussing this with my professor tomorrow when this comes up in class.

  • To jlrepka’s comment about “doodles and such…”: for me these
    can also refer to my doodles and text that I add after a lecture, while
    re-reading my notes. I am more likely to
    add to handwritten notes because they look more fluid to me. Conversely, typed notes appear more final so I
    am less likely to modify them. Some commentators
    below, however, make excellent points about the advantages of using a keyboard
    for those having difficulty with a pen. Another advantage of the keyboard is cutting and pasting typed notes. For example, if a lecture sounds out of order,
    the listener can re-order it. If I tried
    to modify my handwritten notes with arrows and “see next page of notes”, I would
    confuse myself.

  • Yeree Kim

    Great article. I’ve personally tried this myself and when I wrote my notes down on a piece of paper I happened to remember so much more. Even having a pen in your hand and doodling on a piece of paper helped me remember key points that were said in the lecture when I look back at the doodle. Typing is such an effortless skill especially when you know how to touch type and the information is never absorbed properly. Also, I tend to look back on my handwritten notes more than the notes that I take on my laptop which is interesting too. I hope more university students realise this and try out their experiment themselves. You never know they might ace that final exam! Happy Handwriting 🙂


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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