Why You Should Take Notes By Hand

Students From A Technical University Sitting In A Lecture Hall

UPDATES 9-7-2014: First, I’m proud to say that in just three days this post now has the top number of hits on my site. It’s hardly viral, but it’s certainly been popular. My top four posts are all about higher ed followed by my post about Frozen. Next, I’m happy to say I’ve had some great and productive conversations about this topic on LinkedIn. I’ve added some insights from that conversation at the end of the post.


Why you should take notes by hand, or, how technology is working against your learning.

Here’s what happens according to a couple of well-designed studies:

1. Because of the way that human beings interact with laptops, studies indicate that students who take notes on laptops don’t learn nearly as much as those who write out their notes on paper.

2. This learning differential doesn’t exist only because students are distracted on their laptops by other things. It’s actually the use of the laptop itself. What happens is that students taking notes on a laptop attempt to capture everything that’s being said, so that they’re acting more like passive recipients of information — like stenographers — than actually thinking about the lecture.

On the other hand, students who take notes on paper have to think about what they’re writing down because they can’t possibly capture everything. That means they’re more cognitively engaged with the lecture material than the laptop note taker. Even a week later, students who took notes on paper scored higher on tests for both conceptual and factual content than laptop note takers.

3. But students ARE ALSO distracted by other things on their laptops: according to other studies, 40% of the time students are looking at non-course related material while in class if they’re using a laptop in class. Facebook, email, chats, etc.

The results:

1. Because students aren’t learning as much, they complain about the quality of their education (yes, a result noted in one study as well).

2. Administrators listen to these student complaints and attempt to address outmoded instructional methods.

3. To appear innovative, they then spend a lot of money on educational technology that puts learning onto a screen.

4. Schools have to spend millions of dollars on this tech so have to adjunctify the faculty pool, which further degrades instructional quality. The problem is not that adjunct instructors are bad instructors, but that they are badly paid and badly overworked.

5. As a result, we have a higher educational system that everyone says is “broken” because of “outmoded instructional methods” but that no one thought was “broken” until relatively recently (say the last ten to fifteen years).

The real fix: shut off the laptop and take notes on paper. Just read the reporting about the study linked above, and then read the study. Click the image above and see for yourself.

Some great points made during a LinkedIn discussion:

  • Handwriting on a tablet may well be a good middle way between typing on a computer and handwriting notes on a pad and paper, if you can get a good app for that. I haven’t had any luck. I get the impression others have. I use an iPad Air.
  • There is neuroscience supporting the idea that your brain processes things differently when handwriting rather than typing, so this may be a matter of how our brains and bodies work together as well. In fact, different areas of the brain are activated with printing out by hand compared to writing in cursive, so even different types of handwriting matter.
  • The study is just about one specific activity — note taking — so of course wouldn’t necessarily apply to group work and other tasks that require more engagement than passive recording of notes on a keyboard.
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