As laptops become smaller and more ubiquitous, and with the advent of tablets, the idea of taking notes by hand just seems old-fashioned to many students today. Typing your notes is faster — which comes in handy when there's a lot of information to take down. But it turns out there are still advantages to doing things the old-fashioned way.
For one thing, research shows that laptops and tablets have a tendency to be distracting — it's so easy to click over to Facebook in that dull lecture. And a study has shown that the fact that you have to be slower when you take notes by hand is what makes it more useful in the long run.
In the study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning.
"When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can," Mueller tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."
Mueller and Oppenheimer cited that note-taking can be categorized two ways: generative and nongenerative. Generative note-taking pertains to "summarizing, paraphrasing, concept mapping," while nongenerative note-taking involves copying something verbatim.
And there are two hypotheses to why note-taking is beneficial in the first place. The first idea is called the encoding hypothesis, which says that when a person is taking notes, "the processing that occurs" will improve "learning and retention." The second, called the external-storage hypothesis, is that you learn by being able to look back at your notes, or even the notes of other people.
Because people can type faster than they write, using a laptop will make people more likely to try to transcribe everything they're hearing. So on the one hand, Mueller and Oppenheimer were faced with the question of whether the benefits of being able to look at your more complete, transcribed notes on a laptop outweigh the drawbacks of not processing that information. On the other hand, when writing longhand, you process the information better but have less to look back at.
For their first study, they took university students (the standard guinea pig of psychology) and showed them TED talks about various topics. Afterward, they found that the students who used laptops typed significantly more words than those who took notes by hand. When testing how well the students remembered information, the researchers found a key point of divergence in the type of question. For questions that asked students to simply remember facts, like dates, both groups did equally well. But for "conceptual-application" questions, such as, "How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?" the laptop users did "significantly worse."
The same thing happened in the second study, even when they specifically told students using laptops to try to avoid writing things down verbatim. "Even when we told people they shouldn't be taking these verbatim notes, they were not able to overcome that instinct," Mueller says. The more words the students copied verbatim, the worse they performed on recall tests.
And to test the external-storage hypothesis, for the third study they gave students the opportunity to review their notes in between the lecture and test. The thinking is, if students have time to study their notes from their laptops, the fact that they typed more extensive notes than their longhand-writing peers could possibly help them perform better.
But the students taking notes by hand still performed better. "This is suggestive evidence that longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions," Mueller and Oppenheimer write.
Do studies like these mean wise college students will start migrating back to notebooks?
"I think it is a hard sell to get people to go back to pen and paper," Mueller says. "But they are developing lots of technologies now like Livescribe and various stylus and tablet technologies that are getting better and better. And I think that will be sort of an easier sell to college students and people of that generation."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When you take notes on the puzzle or maybe when you sit down in class, do you pull out your laptop, or do you pull out a piece of paper? A researcher at Princeton University says it matters which one you choose because you'll learn more if you write your notes by hand - a lot more. Pam Mueller joins us now to explain why. Thanks so much for being with us.
PAM MUELLER: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Your study shows that writing notes by hand makes you focus your attention in some way that just typing it doesn't.
MUELLER: So when people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.
MARTIN: That's so interesting. So you're saying that if you're typing notes, you're really, like, taking dictation, whereas if you're doing it by longhand, there's no way you can keep up that way. And so you're inevitably synthesizing information and that's a kind of learning?
MUELLER: Exactly, particularly when you're asked a question that involves conceptual understanding of the material. We found that on factual questions, the students did approximately equivalently. But when it came to the deeper understanding of material, that's where the longhand note takers really shown.
MARTIN: Do you want to out yourself? Are you a longhand note taker or were you, in college, a computer note taker?
MUELLER: So when I was in college, nobody really had a laptop.
MARTIN: (Imitating whispers) Me either. But we won't tell.
MUELLER: (Laughter) When I was in law school, it was a huge debate about laptop versus longhand. And I wished maybe that I'd taken longhand notes there.
MARTIN: But what about for all the college students out there in the throes of exams, probably right now, who are frantically taking notes? Is it just unrealistic to think that people would switch it up and go old school?
MUELLER: I think it is a hard sell to get people to go back to pen and paper. But they are developing lots of technologies now like Livescribe and various stylus-and-tablet technologies that are getting better and better. And I think that could be sort of an easier sell to college students and people of that generation. I think that these results resonate a lot with people who are a little older. But as we showed in our studies, even when we told people they shouldn't be taking these verbatim notes, they were not able to overcome that instinct. So that frantic note taking you were talking about is actually really, really bad.
MARTIN: Pam Mueller is lead author of a study about note taking. Pam, I've been listening carefully and writing things down, all in longhand of course. Now this means I need to work on my penmanship, by the way.
MUELLER: Yeah, it helps if the notes are comprehensible later. But even if they're not, the content is in your brain better than it would be otherwise.
MARTIN: Oh, good. Wait, before I let you go, do you know who we're talking to next on the show?
MUELLER: I heard that Alex Trebek is on this week.
MARTIN: Alex Trebek is on. And I hear that this matters to you. You were on "Jeopardy!"?
MUELLER: Yeah. So I was on the college tournament a long while ago and then on the "Tournament Of Champions" and then the "Ultimate Tournament Of Champions." And then two years ago, they had a 30th anniversary tournament where they brought a bunch of us back. Yeah.
MARTIN: Was he nice to you, Pam?
MUELLER: Oh, yeah. He's a big fan of mine.
MARTIN: Pam Mueller, also known as Dr. Mueller, thanks so much.
MUELLER: Good to talk with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.