Note-Taking 101: Put Those Laptops Away

In an age where technology influences everything we do, it seems natural to pull out a laptop or tablet in class instead of a spiral notebook. Typing notes is faster and allows for more information, but is this a good thing? I argue not. Laptops are distracting, both for the user and others in the class, and studies have shown that longhand note-taking is ultimately better for our learning. Perhaps this age-old habit should still fit into the new age.

The Information Age is an exciting time. There is so much information at our fingertips. However, sometimes we don’t know what to do with it all. Habits of checking in on Facebook, browsing Amazon, and clicking through emails easily form, and with access to laptops and cell phones throughout the day, we tend to end up feeding these habits in our classes. While some resources are helpful — checking the news during a political science lecture, for example — others, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are distractions from our professors and course material. Also, internet browsing tends to distract other students in the lecture hall — people behind you can see everything you’re doing! Notebooks are a simple replacement and remedy for this distracting habit.

A study in Psychological Science by Pam A. Mueller from Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer from University of California, Los Angeles examined the effects of longhand note-taking and laptop use on learning. A group of students were given a series of TED Talks to watch. Half of the students took notes by hand while the other half typed their notes on laptops. In the end, laptop users had more information than notebook users. The students were then given questions about the TED Talks. Notebook users and laptop users scored about the same on questions that had to do with facts, like names and dates. However, when asked conceptual questions, notebook users scored significantly higher. Mueller and Oppenheimer have made a few conclusions with this data.

They discovered that the more words a laptop user had in their notes, the worse they did on the test. This suggests that while trying to get down every bit of information, laptop users weren't processing the material, or making their own interpretations of its meaning. The test results of the notebook users confirmed this theory. Longhand note-taking is more strenuous and time-consuming, forcing students to use what Mueller calls generative skills: summarizing, paraphrasing, and concept mapping. Laptop users produced nongenerative skills: copying word for word. Longhand note-taking also proved to have superior external storage (learning by looking back at notes) and encoding functions (processing information as a means of learning).

While typing may be faster, it reduces the need to process information, making it harder for students to absorb lecture material in such a way that benefits their individual learning style. Trying to get every word down failed to reinforce the central concepts of the TED Talks and how they related to one another. Mueller and Oppenheimer explained the effects of trying to copy words verbatim to the laptops users, but those students had an incredibly hard time breaking the habit in the next trial. The instinct to get down as much information as possible was still there.

Some professors don’t even allow laptops in class. They want their students zeroed in on the course, constantly processing information and answering questions — without the help of Google. Next time you pull out your laptop, consider how you’re taking notes. A notebook might be your best bet.

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