On Taking Notes By Hand


Evidence that writing notes by hand on paper results in greater learning (as compared to taking notes by laptop keyboard). Check out “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard” by Mueller and Oppenheimer in Psychological Science.

CLAIM: In effect, quickly typing copious lecture notes by computer fails to (at least in the experiment) generate the sorts of conceptualization techniques that promote learning (the way that slow handwriting requires students to think about what to selectively write).

Obviously, as any educator will tell you, based on his/her experience, this is an imperfect explanation. Seeing this, the authors also conducted a content analysis, which shows that students writing longhand have to summarize in their own words and draw on conceptual mapping to digest the information.

PROBLEMS: Interestingly, nothing about in-class discussion is mentioned and very little is said about on-line learning. I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions just yet about what this means for practice. There is a powerful irony when I hear a student say “its hard enough to just write this down let alone understand it” … as if notes were really designed for “learning later what you’re learning now.” The active classroom full of discussion — even if some or much of it distracts from the topic at hand — seems relevant. Also, on-line learning wherein notes are often ready-made for the bill-paying student seems like a relevant consideration too in this regard. Also, very little is said about writing assignments: I have been using a technique where students write their first draft totally by hand and then only type it up after I give comments; the quality is outstandingly better, in my experience (using this in a high-level social theory course where conceptualization in significantly important to success on writing assignments).

STUDY: Back to the original study: Evidence comes from experimental research. Mueller and Oppenheimer used the following set-up:

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.

Much of the argument is hinged on a sort-of-fair assumption that college students perceive having laptops in the classroom creates an advantage for the student; typing is faster than writing and this means that students are able to collect a more complete set of notes (as compared to handwriting notes). They write:

When it comes to college students, the belief that more is better may underlie their widely-held view that laptops in the classroom enhance their academic performance.  Laptops do in fact allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, collaborate more easily on papers and projects, access information from the internet, and take more notes.  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.

Time to start telling student to ditch the laptop for the fountain pen? I did years ago.

16 thoughts on “On Taking Notes By Hand

  1. I was just reading this when you posted! I totally agree–I handwrite my lecture notes, too. I give the option of handwritten assignments, but only one student a class will take me up on it.


    • On that topic, I encourage students to draw in their essays; either drawing-up diagrams or illustrating their point (we talk a lot about interaction and technology-human interactions, so a few drawings sometimes really help to elucidate our concepts).


      • my wife finds visuals (and making them) to be highly useful while I don’t at all so might be better to offer a variety of ‘tools’ to the students and to have them share their results and compare what the differing methods/perspectives offer to the problem/task at hand. Tim Ingold has a bit of writing out there on the intertubes about sketching. What seems important to me is not recording (to be briefly memorized and repeated/regurgitated) but sorting out key concepts and or questions. We don’t yet really teach folks in the humanities (or really all too often in the “social” sciences) to work thru problems for themselves (framing, testing, etc).


        • Indeed, indeed, these sorts of sweeping claims always require the “this won’t work for everyone” (or, depending on how poor the methodology, not anyone in particular). At any rate, opening-up the sorts of evidence that we accept that shows learning is perfectly fine by me (although, this implies that a student knows well enough how to learn rather than selecting the perceived “easiest” assignment to complete — a real worry_).


  2. I keep wondering what could be the equivalent of showing your work on an exam (or homework) with math problems in other modes/disciplines?


    • A first move, in my classes, is for students to document how their thinking changed over time. Specifying, for example, “at first” from “now” or something like “I thought the book meant this” but after discussion “I now know that it means this” even though, deep down, “I think it also captures [something else] too”


      • i like that, one of the things to be avoided is the kind of thinking/assignment that says use 3 (or whatever #) articles or such and just leads to cutting and pasting.
        one of the better seminar models i was taught in was that every week everyone had to write a short summary (including any questions/doubts) of the reading (yes we had to read before the class), several folks would be called on to share with the class (one never really knew when), the teacher would make notes on the board and than start to lecture on the reading (with the text in hand & we all read along) and also to incorporate the students’ comments. After a break we would than start a kind of open Q&A on the whole shebang and these readings/writings would build into the final paper.


        • I like that sort of approach too; however, I stick by teaching students (implicitly) to specify the difference between “what I used to think” and “what I now think” (which really pinpoints the “learning” provided students don’t just learn to say “I used to think X, but now I think Y” or, worse, “I always knew Y, so when I read Y, I was like Duh”


      • yes all to the good, the really tricky part is how to make complex ideas/situations available without reducing them to the kinds of tools/skills that students feel like they have mastery over and are now free to now use without further thought/research.


        • Good point: specifying the idea that these tools are not the end, but a means to the end (critical thinking, objective thought (as far as that is possible), and so on)


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