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In regards to note-taking by hand or on a computer

Typing your notes on a computer instead of writing them down with a paper and pen is a very practical way of taking notes during class: it's faster, the notes are available on multiple devices and you don’t have to waste time, a few weeks later, when you’re revising for an exam and you can’t decipher your own sloppy handwriting. Which method is actually more efficient in retaining course information, though? Is it really better to take notes on a computer, or by hand?

Taking notes on a computer instead of with pen and paper is practical in many ways. It’s fast, the notes are available on multiple devices and you don’t have to decipher your sloppy hand-writing a few weeks later when studying for the exam. But when it comes to actually learning things – is it better to take notes by hand or on a computer?

First, we must define why we’re taking notes at all when we want to learn something. Put simply, there are four reasons:

  • to concentrate better
  • to remember better
  • to understand better
  • to be able to go back afterward

We know that the best notes (in the sense of those that aid learning the most) are the ones that process the content, meaning they are written in one's own words and with personal associations. We learn more when we think about what is most important, when we organise the notes based on our own understanding and anchor new information and perspectives to what we already knew before.

There is not a lot of research on whether hand-written notes or notes written on a computer is the best way to achieve this, but there is one big American study (Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014) that many people use as a reference. In the study, students took notes while watching pre-recorded lectures and were later tested on how much they had understood and remembered.

Link to the study by Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014 (PDF, 612 Kb, new tab)

Faster is not always better

It was observed that those who took notes on a computer wrote faster, more and to a larger extent word-for-word what the teacher was saying – compared to those writing by hand. Later, when both groups were tested, they were equally good at remembering facts, but those taking notes by hand were better at answering questions that required applying concepts and remembering correlations. When the students were asked to do the test a week later, after having studied with the notes as their basis, those who had taken notes by hand performed better on both the factual and the more complicated questions.

The researchers believe that the result is due to the fact that those who don't have time to write everything down have to listen more carefully and assess what is most important to write down. In other words, they are processing the material while they’re taking notes. Those writing down what the teacher is saying word-for-word are more focused on the writing itself and less on the actual learning.

There are other studies that show how more areas of the brain are activated when we’re writing by hand than when we’re pressing down the keys of a keyboard. Additionally, it seems like our personal handwriting on paper engages us more and is a better trigger for our memory. If this is the case, it would explain why students with hand-written notes performed better after using them to study.

Don’t let yourself get distracted

The students in the American study didn’t have internet access on the computers that they used to take notes on. There is plenty of research showing that those who for example are able to use social media on their computer or phone while studying perform worse. And that they get distracted merely by the possibility of multitasking, regardless of if they actually are multitasking or not. A tough realisation in the era of Zoom-lectures. 

It seems like it’s difficult to take as good notes on a computer as by hand. But the research on this is not unequivocal. Additionally, it’s no longer the case that a computer or pen and paper are the only two alternatives, there is both hardware and software that allows you to use handwriting on a screen or create digital mind maps. Perhaps this matters. Another aspect to consider is that the brain becomes worse at things that it rarely does, which is a good argument for varying and practising different techniques.

To summarise, there is research suggesting that taking notes by hand can make it easier to understand, remember and concentrate. The most important thing, however, is not the choice between computer or pen and paper, but that you are actively working with the content: sort and organise, anchor new knowledge in concepts that are already familiar to you and test yourself afterward. And to not let yourself get distracted by other things when you’re taking notes.