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Effective notetaking: by hand or digitally?

Typing out your notes on a computer, instead of writing them down with a paper and pen, is a very practical way of taking notes in your classes: it's faster, available on several 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?

First we need to outline why notetaking is such an effective learning tool. Simply put, there are four primary reasons for taking notes during your classes:

  • to concentrate better
  • to remember better
  • to understand better
  • to revise better

We know that the best notes (those which help you to learn the most) are the ones you have written yourself. Writing your own notes helps you to engage with the content and will be written in your own words, with your own particular word-associations. We learn more when we think about what is most important, organize the notes based on our own understanding of the topic, and place this new information and new perspectives into the frame of what we already know.

There is not a lot of research on whether handwritten or computer-written notes are best in achieving this, but one large American study (Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014) that has been used as a reference for many teacher suggests that taking notes by hand may be a more efficient learning tool than previously thought. In this study, students were asked take notes while watching pre-recorded lectures, and then were tested on how much they remembered and had understood from these lectures.

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

Faster is not always better

The findings of the American study revealed that the students who wrote on a computer recorded faster, more accurate notes, recording what the lecturer had said much more literally than those who took handwritten notes. When both groups were tested a short while later, they were equally good at remembering factual information. However, the students who took notes by hand were better at the more complicated questions, which involved applying concepts and remembering connections from the lecture. Moreover, when the students were asked to take the test a week later, after having been allowed to study based only on their notes, those who took notes by hand outperformed the other students both in the factual questions and in the more complicated questions.

The researchers believe that this result is due to the lack of time for the students hand-writing notes: since they do not have time to note everything, these students must listen more carefully and assess which information is most important to write down. They thus process the content while taking notes. Those who record verbatim what the lecturer says focus more on the writing itself and less on learning.

There are other studies which show that more areas of the brain are activated when we write by hand than when we type on a keyboard. Additionally, our own handwriting seems to be a better trigger for memorising content. If this were to be the case, it would explain why the students with handwritten notes performed better after basing their revision on them.

Don’t get distracted

The students in the American study did not have access to the internet on the computers they used to take notes. However, there is plenty of research that shows that students with access to social media on their computers or phones while they study consistently perform worse than those who do not. These studies suggest that it is the possibility if multitasking which is distracting for students: irrespective of whether they actually are multitasking or not. It is a troubling insight in the age of Zoom lectures.

So, by hand, or with the computer?

With all this research in mind, it seems that taking notes on the computer might not be as advantageous as it originally seems when it comes to taking lecture notes. The research, however, is not unequivocal. It’s worth noting that in an age of rapidly-evolving technology, taking notes on a laptop or with a pen are no longer the only two options. There is now both hardware and software that allows students to write, for example, by hand on a screen, or to make digital mind maps. Perhaps these new methods will begin to make a difference to the question of digital or manual notetaking. Equally important to consider is that the brain needs practice to get good at anything: which is a good argument for varying the techniques you use to study. It is simply difficult to say which method is most effective, but where the research agrees is that those who take notes perform better than those who do not: no matter which method they are using.

In summary, there is research that suggests that it may be easier to understand, remember and concentrate if you take notes by hand, but the most important thing is to make sure that you DO take notes. If you feel that working digitally helps you the most, then go for it! Just remember, no matter which approach you are taking, that it isn’t about whether you’re on the computer or using a pen: it’s about HOW you do it! So make sure that you’re actively processing the material in the lecture, sorting and organising the new information in relation to what you already know, actively testing yourself afterwards, and perhaps most importantly, not getting distracted while you’re taking your notes. If you make sure to use these techniques, you are guaranteed to do better in your courses.