Expert Commentary

The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking

2014 paper published in Psychological Science that uses three experiments to compare the ability of students to remember and understand information depending on how they take notes.

Young students are often considered “digital natives,” with technology integrated into every aspect of their lives. While this can be an advantage in some situations, research has shown that the impact is not entirely positive — the Internet allows them to quickly find information, but at the cost of significant distraction in class, for example. And once students graduate to the workforce, studies have shown that they often have difficulty judging information quality, neglect offline resources that could be helpful and, consequently, can fall short of employer expectations.

The use of laptops and tablets in educational settings continues to spread, however — once restricted to universities, they now even appear in grade schools. Technology advocates suggest that students benefit by being able to learn at their own pace, but some studies indicates that information technologies can have a negative impact on academic performance and even test scores. While there has been considerable research on the effectiveness of online instruction — for example, massive open online courses, known as MOOCs — scholars are still assessing how different methods of accessing and interacting with information might affect learning.

To explore these questions, a 2014 paper published in Psychological Science, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” used three experiments to compare the effectiveness of writing out classroom notes longhand with typing them on a laptop. Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA had groups of students — sample sizes ranged from 67 to 151 — watch video lectures in a simulated classroom environment, taking notes either longhand or with a laptop. To eliminate the potential role of distraction, the laptops had the Internet switched off and other programs disabled. After the lecture, the students performed working-memory tests, and were then tested on what they retained from the lectures, either from memory or after consulting their notes. Tests involved both factual questions and conceptual-application questions designed to measure knowledge of the underlying concepts taught in the videos.

The study was designed to test two theories of how note taking can affect learning. First, the “encoding hypothesis” suggests that processing during the act of note-taking improves learning and retention. Note-taking that is generative — for example, summarizing or paraphrasing — is generally seen to indicate a greater level of cognitive processing than taking verbatim notes. Second, the “external storage hypothesis” theorizes that note-taking allows students to review material, which applies even if someone else took those notes.

The study’s findings include:

  • In all three experiments, students who took notes on laptops wrote significantly more words than those who took notes longhand. In the first, those who typed wrote an average of 309 words compared to an average of 173 words for those taking notes longhand.
  • In the first experiment, there was no difference between laptop users and longhand note-takers on factual recall questions. However, on conceptual-application questions, laptop users performed significantly worse. Two countervailing forces appeared to influence this result: Students performed better when they could take more notes, which they did when using laptops, but they also performed better when the notes contained less verbatim content, which was the case for longhand note-takers. The benefits of taking more notes when using a laptop was seemingly outweighed by the propensity to “mindlessly transcribe.”
  • In the second experiment, participants using laptops were explicitly instructed not to simply transcribe the lecture — “Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.” Despite these instructions, those typing notes were much more likely to take down phrases verbatim than longhand note-takers.
  • The third experiment tested students a week after viewing the lectures. The researchers wanted to see if the more extensive notes taken by laptop users helped when reviewing the subject material before the test. Among those students who were not given the opportunity to study notes before the test, there was no difference between those who took notes by laptop or longhand. However, when students were allowed to review their notes for 10 minutes in advance of the test, those who took longhand notes performed better on both factual and conceptual questions.
  • The findings of the third experiment appear to undermine the “external storage” hypothesis — that the greater quantity of notes taken by laptop users should help when reviewing material before a test. This may provide evidence that longhand notes have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions. However, it is also possible that, because of enhanced encoding, reviewing longhand notes simply reminded participants of lecture information more effectively than reviewing laptop notes did.

The authors conclude that “laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even — or perhaps especially — when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking…. For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

Related research: A 2014 research roundup, “Multitasking, Social Media and Distraction,” brings together more than a dozen recent studies that look at issues such as how social media use might affect offline performance and learning.

Keywords: education, technology, psychology, cognition, digital natives

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