Sunday, November 2, 2014

Taking notes by hand or computer: What works if you plan to study?

For as long as I have been teaching college students, and actually the entirety of my college education, there have been more laptops in my lecture halls than pens and paper. I have always been partial to taking notes by hand, mostly because I take liberties like writing big concepts in ALL CAPS, details in tiny print, underlining, doodling, and using other special characters that aren't quick to type. However, I have always wondered whether one method was better than the other for learning the actual information. 

So, I was thrilled to read the most recent issue of Psychological Science and see an article about this exact question. Dr. Pam Mueller and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer published their findings from 3 experiments aimed at testing whether longhand or laptop note taking result in better learning of new material. 


First, they conducted a simple experiment. They recruited 67 students from Princeton University to watch a 15 minute TED talk, take notes, and then take a quiz on the content of the lecture they watched. Half of the participants were assigned to take notes longhand, while the other half were assigned to take notes on a provided laptop. During the quiz, there were questions about facts within the talk as well as more conceptual application questions. 


In this first study, they found that participants who were in the longhand note taking condition performed better on the conceptual application questions about the lecture content, however participants in the longhand and laptop conditions had similar performance on simple fact recall questions. What's more interesting, is that they reviewed the content of each participant's notes. During this process, they realized that laptop note-takers are more likely to write down what the lecturer was saying "verbatim," while longhand note-takers were more likely to write down content from the lecture "in their own words." So, they considered whether laptop note-taking was contributing to poorer performance on conceptual learning because it causes people to simply record what the lecturer says. This led them to conduct a second study. 


In the second study, the research group recruited 151 students from UCLA who came to the lab to watch 15 minute TED talks. The participants were then assigned to one of three conditions. One condition was longhand note-taking, another was laptop note-taking, and the third was laptop note-taking where they were advised to not write down what the lecturer was saying and instead write notes in their own words. The researchers hypothesized that if writing content verbatim was the culprit in students' poor performance on conceptual learning, then the students who were in the laptop group with explicit instruction to write notes "in their own words" would outperform the laptop group who were not advised. 


In this second study, they found that their first finding was replicated. Specifically, participants who took notes longhand demonstrated a better conceptual understanding of the material than those who took notes with a laptop as they normally would. However, giving participants advice on taking notes in their own words improved their performance, although still performing below those using longhand. 


The results of this second study led the research group to consider how these findings may relate to real life learning among college students, or what we call ecological validity. One important issue with these studies is that most students take notes so that they can study them later, like the night before an exam. This led the group to wonder whether laptop note-taking was actually more helpful because it led to more thorough notes that help when reviewing material and studying. According to this logic, laptop note-takers would outperform longhand note-takers if given a chance to study their notes before the test.  


To address this, they conducted a third study. In this study, 109 students at UCLA were recruited to come to a lab, was 4 lectures (each 7 minutes long). Half of the participants were assigned a laptop for note-taking, while half were assigned longhand note-taking. The participants left the lab and returned 1 week later. Upon arrival to the lab, half of the participants were given 10 minutes to study their notes, while the other half were not, before taking a 40 question test on the content and concepts of the lectures. Thus, they had 4 groups of participants: longhand-study, longhand-no study, laptop-study, laptop-no study. 


They found that participants in the longhand-study group outperformed all three of the other groups, while the other 3 groups demonstrated similarly poor performance, and on both factual recall and conceptual application questions, people who studied their longhand notes significantly outperformed their peers who studied their laptop notes. Consistent with the first two studies, conceptual application were the most difficult for participants in the laptop-study condition. 



There you have it. The data is pretty clear that if you are listening to information and taking notes, you will learn more by taking notes longhand than you will typing on a laptop. What I particularly appreciated about this article was their novel approach. I have read up on this topic in the past, but have only come across studies finding that students who are on laptops get distracted by email, Facebook, the news, chatting, and under-perform for those reasons. These studies consistently find that students who take notes longhand outperform students using laptops, but for all the wrong reasons that have to do with distraction and multitasking. 

This study stands out because they have identified one reason why longhand notes lead to deeper learning and understanding of the material: translating the ideas into your own words. In other words, you are encoding the information on a deeper level if you are forced to take a professor's statement and translate it into language you understand. Typing is too easy and we do it so quickly that we end up simply transcribing instead of learning. 


In short, take your notes by hand if your goal is learning and/or doing well on exams. Take these data to heart, because apparently studying your typed notes will not make up for what you would have learned by taking them by hand. If you must use a laptop, for whatever reason, try to write your notes in your own words, don't just transcribe. 


One important detail to consider about the third study was the role of delay between the lecture and the test, given that participant went a week between watching the lectures and taking the test. While in the first two experiments the longhand note takers outperformed the laptop note takers, after a week delay there was no difference. So, you should take your notes longhand if you plan to study and want to do well, but if you don't plan to study for the test, then it doesn't seem to matter how you take notes. 


Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological science, 0956797614524581.

1 comment:

  1. All the modern individuals and students have been taking notes by hand and computer for the fulfillment of the goals for the people. The urge has been observed and estimated for the full use of the best british essays in the right of the right and significant terms for the humans for the writing of notes in different methods.

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