When It is Better to Take Notes by Hand
These days many people can type faster than they can write by hand, particularly if they’ve grown up using laptops. This is a hugely useful skill of course and allows you to take copious notes, quickly and easily, which must surely be a good thing, right?
Maybe not. In an experiment, run by Pam Mueller at Princeton University published in 2014, students were given Ted talks to watch and were told to take notes.
Half were given laptops and half took notes with a pen and paper. You might expect little difference in the notes, since students are so used to using a keyboard these days. In fact, there was. The students using a keyboard were more likely to type the lecturers’ words verbatim, while the students writing more slowly by hand had no choice but to engage with the information in order to allow them to summarise. Afterwards the students were given some tricky intelligence tests to distract them, and were then quizzed on the content of the lecture.
When it came to remembering facts, it didn’t matter which method of note-taking they used, but when asked to explain the concepts covered in the lecture, the students who took notes by hand did better.
Verbatim note-taking involves a shallower form of cognitive processing. You can even do it without thinking about the content at all should you choose to. But when using a pen and paper you process the information more deeply because you can’t possibly write it all down. The other advantage of using a pen and paper is that you can move around the page very quickly, circling, underlining or adding extra information in the margins.
The team wondered whether it wasn’t the use of a laptop that was the problem, but the fact that the students took verbatim notes. So next they did a similar study, but this time the students were cautioned against taking verbatim notes. Despite the warning, when the notes were analysed, the laptop-using students still took more verbatim notes and still couldn’t answer the conceptual questions as well as the people taking longhand notes.
But surely in the long run if your notes are more complete this will help when it comes to revision? Maybe not. When the students were allowed to revise from their notes before being tested a week later, the pen-and-paper group still did better. The reason is that cognitively processing material more deeply while you listen, helps you both to understand it and to remember it later on. Even if you never refer back to your notes again, the process of creating them can be useful. The exception is with learning simple facts. Then taking notes on a laptop can work just fine.
A more passive way still of keeping track of information from lectures is to record them so you can listen again or re-watch them later. But is there a risk that because you know everything is there for when you need it, you might not concentrate properly? Or does it free you up to concentrate fully on what’s happening because you’re not distracted by trying to take notes?
Within psychology when a task like this is outsourced to technology, it’s known as cognitive off-loading. But does it help?
In an experiment by Bianka Patel at the University of North Carolina, pharmacy students were told that their lecture would be split into two halves. The first 50-minute section would be videoed, so that they could watch it again later if they wanted to. But the second 50-minute section would not be recorded.
They were tested immediately after the session and a week later to see how much they could recall from each lecture – the one that was recorded allowing them to fully engage with the topic and the non-videoed lecture where they needed to take notes. I wonder which you think would work best?
The answer was that it made no difference. This is because both techniques bring their own advantages. The advantage of not having to take notes is that you can focus your full attention on what’s you’re being told without worrying about writing it down, because they can always listen again later. But the benefit of taking notes is that it forces you to process the information and think about it in order to work out the best way of summarising it.
But there was one surprise here. When the students knew they could see the video later if they wanted to, they actually took more notes and drew more diagrams, which was something of a mystery.
So whether it’s best to record lectures or not is more or less down to personal preference. But one more thing to consider is that typed notes do have an advantage when it comes to easy storage and searching.
A 2019 study from Helsinki where medical students were given iPads, found that students found them very helpful. Tablets gave them the flexibility to write non-linear notes and seemed to suit them particularly well as dental students, where visual images are important.
But even though the devices were popular, the students’ performance with and without them wasn’t measured, so we don’t know what difference it made to their marks.
Of course, if you can type fast and you want a transcription, then a laptop is ideal, but if your aim is to understand the material better and not just to create a record of the material, then take notes by hand.
And the other lesson from all of this, of course, is to make your notes concise.
Written by Claudia Hammond