Why Taking Notes on A Computer Won’t (Typically) Help You
Even when distractions are controlled for, laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.
Even when distractions are controlled for, laptop use might impair performance by affecting the manner and quality of in-class note taking.1
By The Rev. Dr. Dru Johnson
When studied side-by-side, computer note taking is clearly inferior to handwritten class notes. For most of us, that’s really all we need to know. But for some of us, we want to know exactly why computer note-takers don’t learn as much–typically getting lower grades.
We’re all thinking we know why: students are surfing the internet in class! Of course, this is part of the problem. Students and professors alike report widespread distractions in class with students supposedly taking notes on computers. However, it’s only part of the problem and not the main reason that handwritten notes are superior to typed notes.
Studies have shown that writing by hand increases our memory,2 makes for better understanding in our brains, and better understanding when our brains encounter our handwritten notes again for test preparation. Or in techno-speak: “longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions.”3 Of course, computer users type way more information than their pen-clawing peers. Ironically, their notes are not as useful to them. They end up with more and lower quality content from their lectures, undigested and hastily tapped “data” that doesn’t ultimately help them.”4
Even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand.5
Students know what’s up–computers distract. But deploying the cost-benefit analysis, they wrongly presume it all equals out. “Even when students admit that laptops are a distraction, they believe the benefits outweigh the costs.” However, research has consistently shown that the benefits don’t outweigh and end up depreciating their whole academic experience. Studies found “that students using laptops are not on task during lectures, show decreased academic performance, and are actually less satisfied with their education than their peers who do not use laptops in class.”6 Read that last clause again for good measure.
Why do typed notes in class produce such academic blether7 on the digital page? Here’s what researchers think and professors have noticed. For most, we can type as fast as we can think. When touch-typing, we tend to view our notes as dictations and attempt to copy lectures word-for-word, or as much as we can. Because we are basically acting like court-room stenographers, we are not remembering the lecture content as well either. It’s passing through, but we don’t get that good of a look at it.
With the loving labor of handwritten notes, we are forced to process what we hear and see in class, organizing and summarizing the lecture. This is how deeper learning and memory happens: engaging, reflecting, and writing all cooperate to deepen learning. “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.”8
Because of these and many more reasons, I don’t allow laptops for note-taking. I’m certain that some courses at The King’s College might be well-suited to typed notes or computer use–I’m looking at you finance degree. But, for most occasions, el papel will do just fine–No!–demonstrably better than anything we could type.
Dr. Dru Johnson is the Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at The King’s College in NYC.
1. Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard.” Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (2014): 1159.
2. Timothy J. Smoker, Carrie E. Murphy, and Alison K. Rockwell, “Comparing Memory for Handwriting versus Typing,” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting 53, no. 22 (Oct 2009) 1744–47.
5. Mueller and Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” 1159-68.
6. Mueller and Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” 1159-68.
7. “Blether”: a Scots team meaning “talk in a long-winded way without making very much sense.” Dictionary.com.