Want to Remember Your Notes? Write Them, Don't Type Them

Dust off your pens and notebooks. A new study finds laptops make note-taking so easy it's actually ineffective.
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(Photo: EM Karuna/Shutterstock)

(Photo: EM Karuna/Shutterstock)

In the past decade, a bunch of studies have shown that bringing a laptop to class is not great for learning. Anyone who has sat through a lecture with the Internet in front of them hasn’t really been surprised. After all, you can only take so many notes while simultaneously catching up on Game of Thrones and g-chatting with your friends.

A new study in Psychological Science, though, suggests there’s even more to laptops’ negative effects on learning than distraction. Go old school with a pen and paper next time you want to remember something, according to Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton and the University of California-Los Angeles, respectively, because laptops actually make note-taking too easy.

The researchers ran a series of studies that tested college students’ understanding of TED Talks after they took notes on the videos either in longhand or on Internet-less laptops. Even without Facebook, the computer users consistently did worse at answering conceptual questions, and also factual-based ones when there was a considerable delay between the videos and testing.

The problem, it seems, is that the lightening-quick speed of typing encourages listeners to transcribe what they’re hearing without actually paying attention to what’s being said.

The problem, it seems, is that the lightening-quick speed of typing encourages listeners to transcribe what they’re hearing without actually paying attention to what’s being said—a note-taking approach that has been proven ineffective in the past. Typing every last word that’s said might make you think you have a more complete understanding of the material, but when it comes to comprehension, notes’ quality outweighs their quantity, Mueller and Oppenheimer say.

“Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point,” they write, “if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears.”

And here’s the scary news: Whether we’re aware of it or not, this effect may be totally unavoidable—or at least the result of a habit so deeply ingrained in us it will be hard to overcome. In one study, Mueller and Oppenheimer specifically told laptop-using participants not to write their notes verbatim, but most still did. They couldn't help it.

“Despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good," Mueller and Oppenheimer write.

Both researchers say they became interested in this study after switching back to pen and paper for note-taking and realizing how much more effective it was.

“I felt like I’d gotten so much more out of the lecture that day,” says Mueller in a press release. “Danny said that he’d had a related experience in a faculty meeting: He was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realized that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.”

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