Learning

Taking Notes? Science Says You Should Skip The Electronics And Write By Hand

Walk into any college classroom, and you're sure to witness a sea of glowing laptop screens and clicking keyboards. Teachers often worry about the distraction that laptops can create in a class, but what about students who stay honest and use them only to take notes? According to research, that's hardly any better. Studies show that writing notes by hand is far more effective than typing on a computer, and that applies to all levels of education, from grade school to grad school. The reasons might be surprising.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Processor

In 2008, South Texas College of Law professor Kevin Yamamoto published a report in the Journal of Legal Education making the case for banning laptops in classrooms. The research he included showed that students who wrote notes by hand received higher exam scores, followed along more easily, were more engaged in discussions, and didn't rely on looking things up as much as their screen-reliant counterparts. In his own classroom, banning laptops completely changed the dynamic, resulting in in-depth discussions that helped clarify concepts which may have otherwise gone under-explained. In fact, his research showed that students who took notes by hand passed the bar exam at a higher rate. And considering the notorious difficulty of the bar exam, it's easy to imagine that taking notes by hand would be a safer bet in a wide range of academic situations.

More recently in 2014, a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer published in Psychological Science showed that students who take notes on laptops do worse on conceptual exam questions—questions that require a deep knowledge of a subject—than those who take notes longhand. And according to psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, younger students who hand-write notes can greatly improve their reading and general language skills, memorization and retention, hand-eye coordination, and critical thinking. Practicing the written word can also improve reading skills, she says, because our brains recognize something more quickly and fluidly if we're familiar with creating it ourselves.

Slow Notes Are Good Notes

Most people can take notes more quickly on a keyboard than they can on paper, so how can electronic note-taking be so much worse when it comes to learning? Experts think that this speed advantage is one thing to blame: Mueller and Oppenheimer write in their 2014 study that "laptop note takers' tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning." When you write longhand, you have to pick and choose the most important information to include. In that way, you're already processing what's being said before it ever enters your notes. These are things parents of struggling students will have to consider, and instructors at all levels should keep in mind. Technology is useful, but it comes at a cost.

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