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By Lesley Martin, academic success coach, author, and entrepreneur
Over the past ten years, using a laptop to take notes in school has become increasingly popular for a number of reasons. More and more students own laptops, which combined with numerous cloud solutions, means that you can access your notes from any device where you have internet access.
Additionally, for some students, it’s easier to keep their notes organized digitally than keeping track of notebooks or binders. Electronic notes are searchable and easily reformatted or reorganized. Finally, and this might be one of the most compelling reasons, is that most students type MUCH faster than they write and can therefore record way more information than if trying to write it all down by hand.
Well I hate to be the bearer of some unpopular news, but more and more evidence points to why using a computer to take notes is less effective than hand-written notes when it comes to learning. Several research studies have been conducted over the past ten years, and many conclude that laptops can be distracting and the lecture notes are overall less effective in learning new material and performing well on tests.
Of course laptops are distracting.
It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that studies have found that laptops can prove to be distracting during class. Students know it and professors experience it.
Let’s face it, when a lecture hits a lull, who wouldn’t want to play a video game, check your social or see what you left in your Amazon cart? We think we can pay attention and listen for the important stuff, but what really happens is that we miss things. This happens because the brain is uniquely built to focus on one thing at a time. Yes, you can switch back and forth quickly so it seems that you haven’t lost your focus, but in fact there is a cost to that switching. That cost to you during a lecture could be a key sentence that pulls together a concept or a detail about an upcoming test.
For some students, the computer doesn’t provide a distraction. Those students are able to stay laser-focused during lectures by having only one window open dedicated to taking notes. Those same students probably don’t check their phones during class and likely position themselves close to the front of the room to support their goal staying focused on the material being discussed.
Not all notes are created equal.
To understand why handwritten are being found to be more effective in learning, let’s talk about two different types of notes: generative and non-generative.
Generative notes include summarizing, paraphrasing, creating charts and concepts maps whereas non-generative notes record what’s said verbatim. Said another way, generative notes require learners to process the information they are hearing into a new or adapted form. And while you are doing this, that information starts to encode into your brain. To write generative notes, your brain must be active to help you translate many words into few. No surprise, the process of learning happens while you do this.
Non-generative notes don’t require the same processing but rather record verbatim with your hands (either in typing or handwriting) what you are hearing. And guess what? Laptops promote non-generative or word-for-word transcriptions of lecture notes because we normally type much faster than we write. On the other hand when you write by hand, you can quickly use symbols to represent a concept (i.e. arrows or symbols) that are time consuming on a laptop. Further, when you don’t have speed of typing at your fingertips, you have to be more selective about what you write down forcing your brain to process the information not just transcribe it. This is when and how the learning begins.
Swap your laptop for a paper notebook.
If your goal is to learn from your classes and do well on exams, you likely will want to take notes by hand. A recent study out of Princeton and UCLA proved that students who take notes by hand do substantially better on assessments that test conceptual knowledge.
What’s interesting about their study is that they found that when given equal amounts of time to study their notes before a test, students who took notes by hand outperformed those that used a laptop despite the fact that the laptop notetakers had recorded more information.
It’s not the number of words written, but the type of notes recorded that makes the difference in learning.
So while a popular reason to use a computer to take notes—that you can write down more information—may seem like a great reason to use a laptop, in fact, the type of notes taken with a laptops proves to be less effective in learning.
Given that so many students have grown up taking notes electronically, it’s hard to imagine a massive switch to paper. But if you want to provide yourself the best opportunity to learn, consider picking up some binder paper and pen and see if it makes a difference to you. You might be surprised at how much more you learn from writing rather than typing.
Lesley Martin is an Academic Success Coach and founder of ClassTracker, a company that makes (paper) planners for students and schools. She’s authored two books geared towards student success: Where’s My Stuff and Make the Grade. Her latest product, The Ultimate Student Planner by ClassTracker is designed specifically to help college students manage their hectic lives.