Last year, I wrote about how certain study techniques are more effective than others. Surprising, a lot of study techniques that students routinely engage in aren’t all that helpful to memorizing and learning material (such as highlighting or underlining text, or re-reading it).
Two researchers recently expanded upon this research to answer the question — does taking class notes on your computer help or hinder the learning process?
The answer may surprise you.
Since the turn of the century, laptops have become ubiquitous in college classrooms. You would be hard pressed to walk into any lecture hall or classroom on a university campus and not see most of the students typing away their class notes on a laptop or tablet.
We already know that, in general, laptop use in classrooms can be distracting. While everyone believes that WIFI classroom connection is “helping” their education, it’s far more likely to be a way to keep Facebook open while ostensibly taking notes. And past research has shown that students who use laptops in the classroom tend to be less happier and satisfied with their education.
All good enough reasons a student should think twice before prying open their laptop’s lid.
But new research (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014) suggests an even better reason for putting away the laptop and pulling out a notebook and a pen — you’re likely learning and retaining less of knowledge when you use a laptop.
The researchers conducted three separate studies with three different groups of students enrolled in a local university. All of the studies began by watching a TED video talk.
The subjects in the first experiment took notes on either a laptop or longhand, according to whichever condition they were assigned to, and then completed a series of difficult mental tasks that took about 20-30 minutes. Once that was done, they took a quiz on the content of the TED video.
The subjects in the second experiment did the exact same thing, but students were warned before the video started that taking notes on their laptop would result in people by-and-large transcribing what they were hearing, rather than formulating the content into memorable pieces of information. They were encouraged not to do this.
The subjects in the third experiment took the quiz on the TED talk a week later, and were given the chance to study their notes for 10 minutes before the quiz started. The hypothesis for this experiment was that since laptop users tended to write down more information, perhaps the quantity of information would trump quality and result in better quiz scores.
Longhand Outperforms Laptop Use
In every condition, students who took notes by longhand outperformed students who took notes with a laptop on conceptual questions in the quiz. Even in the second group — who were explicitly warned not to transcribe the video word-for-word — most students did exactly that.
On multiple college campuses, using both immediate and delayed testing across several content areas, we found that participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes than participants who wrote longhand, thus hurting learning. Moreover, we found that this pattern of results was resistant to a simple verbal intervention: Telling students not to take notes verbatim did not prevent this deleterious behavior.
However, in the first two studies, it’s also important to note that the researchers did not find any significant difference between the two groups’ quiz scores. People who took notes on a laptop did just as well overall on the quiz as those who took longhand notes. They just did significantly worse on conceptual — rather than factual — questions.
Which makes sense… Reducing oneself down to a transcriptionist means that while you might get all the facts down, your brain really isn’t doing any processing of those facts into concepts. When you take handwritten notes, on the other hand, you’re not simply transcribing. You’re summarizing and conceptualizing as you go, so your brain has a good grasp of the conceptual ideas at the time of learning.
All in all, this study suggests that there are some real benefits to taking class notes in longhand and putting the laptop away. Especially for classes which aren’t just simply regurgitating facts for later testing.
Don’t believe the data? Try it on yourself in a simple single-case A/B design. For the first part of next semester, take all of your class notes in one class only in longhand until the first exam or the mid-term. Then for the second part of the semester, reverse it and take only notes on your laptop. Do your exam grades change (assuming you hold all other study variables the same)?
You will have your own personalized answer.
Mueller, PA & Oppenheimer, DM. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581