When it comes to studying, time is a major issue. For students with a high volume of information to study, cramming is sometimes required. For example, medical students don’t have the luxury of time to study one subject and absolutely nail it, because they have eight other subjects they’re simultaneously being tested on. The real secret to studying, however, is that the quantity of time spent is not nearly as important as the quality of it. If you ever wondered whether or not typing your notes can stack up to writing them by hand, let this be a lesson to you.
Intuitively, we can say that writing with a pencil is easier because we have been doing so all our lives. It also gives us the advantage of easily drawing arrows and diagrams (depending on the content of what is being studied). However, the amount of notes most people can take by writing on paper is only a fraction of what they can type out on a computer, in terms of time. Furthermore, the physical demands of constant (especially prolonged) writing yields more fatigue than that of typing.
So if you are a student and you have lectures to take notes during, how should you do it? On a computer, or by hand? A collaborative study with Princeton University’s Pam Mueller and the UCLA’s Daniel Oppenheimer investigated this very question:
Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
In other words, people tend to make the mistake of typing more information than they need, whereas people who wrote by hand knew that they could not write all of what the lecturer said. Therefore, they wrote only the important parts. Then why, you might ask, wouldn’t the people typing also write only the important parts? Surely, that could be done. However, since the writers are forced to write at a slower speed than the typers, they are constantly mentally evaluating and categorizing information, and making judgments on what’s important. This extra attention is what makes the difference.
A basic yet important concept memory psychologists have been using for decades is called “elaborative encoding.” That is, the process of learning new information is easier when it is learned more elaborately. For example, many people have problems remembering passwords. For security reasons, it is always best to create complicated passwords, but this makes it difficult for the creator to remember as well. For example, the password “A41a14A” would be considerably difficult to memorize because it is just a random string of characters. However, if you elaborately think of associations you can make with such a password (such as “A41a14A = all-for-one-and-one-for-all”) then your ability to remember such information will be greatly influenced.
This why this study is so important to students. As the Association for Psychological Science reports:
Surprisingly, the researchers saw similar results even when they explicitly instructed the students to avoid taking verbatim notes, suggesting that the urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome.
The researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later when participants were given a chance to review their notes before taking the recall test. Once again, the amount of verbatim overlap was associated with worse performance on conceptual items.
Even after being warned about taking notes verbatim, students couldn’t help it. I can imagine that this is especially the case for those students who can type at impressive speeds.
The Bottom Line
With all of this said, should we throw away the idea of typing with a laptop? There could be an argument made for those who are specifically good at reading information and cognitively organizing it in meaningful ways; but this is a skill that takes a lot of practice, and I don’t have persuasive evidence to contradict the Mueller & Oppenheimer study. Therefore, it would not be recommended to type your notes during a lecture.
Of course, if you are so well disciplined on a laptop that you can learn new information in the same way as someone who is writing their notes, then there should be no problem. However, everyone thinks that they can do so, and it’s evidently not nearly as easy as it sounds. If you really want to learn the new information you hear, the research literature suggests that it would be best to write your notes by hand.