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.

Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at jamesrovira.com for details.

31 thoughts on “Why You Should Take Notes By Hand

  1. I would tell my ninth graders not to write anything until I told them to. I’d put some info on a slide and have them read it; then I would take the slide down and have them write down the main idea in their own words. I would put the slide up again and let them look at it for another minute, then take it down and have them add whatever they felt they needed to. I suggested that they go home and transfer their notes to a Word document, adding their UNDERSTANDING of the material.


  2. As a community college instructor, I have seen students think about text and info more when writing notes by hand bc it is a slower process than inputting info on a screen. This prompts them to ask questions, which is good. Also, in some ways students are more cautious of their mechanics when writing things down.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I disagree. I developed a system over the course of 4 years of college where I developed a highly effective system of note taking. This issue with retention is that this study seems to be concerned within class learning.I found myself much more likely to review my notes when they were in a digital format because they were always available. I do not have access to the entire article but I wonder if the students in the study were given any formal note taking strategies. I feel that college professors always expects students to know, but this is probably one of the most undervalued skills in college. I feel that by typing my notes, and being able to keep up with the speed of the professor, allowed me to capture and listen to everything that the professor had to say. When I was forced to take notes by hand I found myself coming up from writing having missed a large section of the lecture.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michael — the studies attempted to take into account the more comprehensive nature of laptop note taking by testing a week after the lecture, and those who studied from less comprehensive, handwritten notes still did better on both conceptual and factual measures. That doesn’t mean that anyone’s individual experience wouldn’t differ, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Back in the day when we had type writers a fellow student would take notes in class and then re-type them in the dorm. I think the process of reviewing the notes helped him remember better. I suspect this would work with a modern word processor program and computer because the reviewing element is more important than the technology.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha… that was half of my undergrad experience (can only take night classes) and all of my grad experience. There are advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that, yes, the class is Too Bloody Long.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was fine w the 3 hour once-a-week classes I took (even 7-10pm) in junior college. However, at an art or trade school, and with the current generation, even an hour seems too much to ask for students to pay attention unless they worked hard to get accepted to a higher university. I mix up lessons similar to an above poster–quiz/quiz review/group discussion/group vocab-idiom challenge/class discussion/students act-out a scene/presentation/short clip of film depiction. Otherwise, quite a few can’t/won’t follow a lecture. Some say they need their hands to be doing something to concentrate! lol Uh-huh . . . take notes!! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great article. I play a 15 minute video in my class and instruct all students to try to absorb – as much material as they can – by handwriting notes. Then I ask, what was their impression between actively taking notes by hand rather than just taking notes by filling-in-the blanks on a short summary note page I provide.

    Their overwhelming response is that they concentrate more on what is being said. Research done at the University of Wisconsin supports the premise that active note taking, a kinesthetic function, combined with an auditory and visual presentation elicit the best retention and recall. Active note taking in this example is more

    The study “highlights the effectiveness of multimodal stimulation and visual stimulation concerning memory retention and recall and further suggest a physiological relationship between the brain, lungs, and heart while under the stress of using one’s memory.

    I would add as an anecdote, when students read their notes out loud to themselves in a review session, they tend to be more confident and perform better on tests.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Brad — this response looked complete to me, so I went ahead and approved it if that’s alright. And thanks much for responding. I love that you checked this yourself. I really like the idea of reading notes aloud.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s quite obvious to me that hand writing of subject matter is more cognitively engaging. However, really students should be taking notes at home and then be totally engaged in active learning during class. It’s the lecture mode itself along with PowerPoint notes that has enabled students to skip reading and preparation. We have trained them to be passive learners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Taylor — thanks for responding. I think part of the point of these studies is that certain types of note taking aren’t completely passive learning activities. However, I agree that the best courses aren’t straight lecture for 50 or 75 minutes. I’ve been lucky: in my entire undergrad experience, I’ve only had one course that was made up of nothing but continuous lecture.

      Here’s what I usually do in my lit classes (75 minutes):
      5 min: announcements.
      15 minutes: quiz on the day’s required reading.
      15 minutes: lecture that covers quiz material.
      20 minutes: group or individual thesis development exercise focused on the day’s reading.
      20 minutes: student presentation of group or individual work.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on taking notes with a tablet and stylus, it’s still “by hand” but also electronic. I never found typing notes on a laptop to be particularly useful, and always preferred handwritten notes, however I’ve recently made the switch to using my tablet and stylus and a “notebook” app for note-taking at work. It’s not perfect, but it does have a lot of advantages over paper notes and I feel like I still have the cognitive benefits of handwriting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a great question, Jay. I don’t see a difference between taking handwritten notes on a stylus or on paper. The only possible difference is, I think, how well you can really write with a stylus. I haven’t had a lot of luck with that, but maybe I haven’t found good apps yet.

      I think the question ultimately isn’t about the tech or lack of tech, but about the activity that the student is engaged in.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on taking notes with a tablet and stylus, it’s still “by hand” but also more electronic. I never found typing notes on a laptop to be particularly useful, and always preferred handwritten notes, however I’ve recently made the switch to using my tablet and stylus and a “notebook” app for note-taking at work. It’s not perfect, but it does have a lot of advantages over paper notes and I feel like I still have the cognitive benefits of handwriting.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this post. Do you have links to the research? I plan to have a discussion with my students about this before I limit laptops in the classroom. I want to be more democratic about the decision. I want to expose my students to the research first and allow all of us to arrive at the decision together after an analysis of the research. I teach grad students. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. There is a vast global and nefarious conspiracy to make us stupid.

    It involves everything from tiny keyboards that allow thumbs to press a maximum of 140 keys to PowerPoint to online exams and chat rooms and includes Bloom’s idiotic taxonomy, multiple choice quizzes, MOOCs and … so on.

    Worst thing? APA citations … what ever happened to interesting footnotes?


    1. Haha — Because of the predominance of Criminal Justice and Business majors at my institution, we teach APA style in Freshman Composition. I think the whole English dept. would agree with you about APA style.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. An excellent note on class room lectures and teaching methods and learning modes. I think it is the same with delivering lectures particularly in technical courses. I feel that not using any technology such as power point presentation but instead writing on the black board is a better way of teaching. This gives more time for the student to grasp and note the points. If you use power point presentation, students think that they can always borrow and copy the material from the CD etc. and hence do not pay much attention.

    Liked by 1 person

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