When it comes to taking notes, write; don’t type

Lecture halls and conference and meeting rooms are littered these days with the glowing screens of attendees’ laptops and tablets. We no longer politely ask our audience to turn off their devices because they are, in fact, taking notes on them. But should they be?

According to a study by psychologists at Princeton University, we remember much more about what we write than what we type when we take notes.

The study involved 65 students, watching TED lectures, in small groups, armed with either a laptop or pen and paper. They then completed three ‘distractor tasks’ and after 30 minutes had to answer factual and conceptual questions on the lectures they had watched.

Both performed well on the factual recall questions such as “approximately when did an event occur?”, but the laptop users performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions, such as “how did given approaches differ?” The pen users also had much better recall of the conceptual items than the laptop users one week later, after they were both given a chance to review their notes.

Notes taken by laptop users were longer, but they contained more verbatim overlap with the lecture. The results suggest that when we take notes by hand we tend to process information more effectively and select the most salient points to record. When we type we have a tendency to “mindlessly” transcribe what we hear. And even when the students were, in a later study, specifically told not to produce verbatim notes, they still did. This indicated that the medium encouraged a form of note-taking that diminished learning.

Pam Mueller, lead author of the study, does not anticipate a mass return to notebooks because of the results, but they may encourage people to take advantage of stylus technologies, which combine optimal note-taking strategies with electronic storage of information. 

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