Put Away the Laptop. Take Longhand Notes.

Medical students using laptops in class (click for credit)

Medical students using laptops in class (click for credit)

In the fall of 2014, I taught a chemistry class at Anderson University. While I had been a guest lecturer for several university-level courses over the years, it was the first time in 19 years that I had taught an entire, semester-long class. As a result, I experienced some things I had never experienced before, and one of them was students using laptops to take notes. It wasn’t incredibly common in my class, but every day, a few students would come in, sit down, and open up their laptops.

I wasn’t crazy about the students using laptops in my class, mostly because I think they can be distracting for the students using them. If a student sees an e-mail message or Facebook notification, it is easy for the student to flip over to those things rather than concentrate on what is happening in class. However, I strongly believe that at some point, you need to start treating students as adults. Thus, I didn’t tell them that they couldn’t use laptops. I did note who the laptop users were and, when I processed test scores, I would compare the average of the students using laptops to the average of the rest of the class. Each test, the laptop users had a lower test score average.

Of course, my sample size was very small. As a result, the statistical error kept me from making any firm conclusion regarding laptop use in class and performance on the tests, but the results did correlate with my “gut feeling” regarding laptop usage, so I became even more convinced that laptop usage in class harms a student’s performance. Little did I know that there is actually a large body of statistically-significant research on the subject, and the studies are in general agreement: taking notes with your laptop is simply not as effective as taking notes longhand.

I learned this by reading a very interesting study that was published in the journal Psychological Science. As is typical with such reports, the paper starts off with a review of the literature. It cites three studies that show laptop-note-takers have decreased academic performance compared to longhand-note-takers, and one study that shows that the students themselves are less satisfied with their education when they use laptops to take notes. Of course, the “obvious” explanation for this is that the students who use laptops in class are being distracted by the other things available on their computers. However, the study linked above shows that even when distractions are removed from the computer, students still get less out of class when they use a laptop to take notes.

The researchers studied three different groups of university students in three different trials. Each trial involved the students viewing a lecture on a monitor. They were instructed to use the note-taking strategy that they used in class, and they were told that they would be tested on the content of the lectures. Students who used a laptop were given one that had no games and no access to the internet. In the first trial, students who took notes on the computer and students who took notes on paper scored roughly the same on the factual questions asked about the lecture, but the students who took notes on paper scored significantly better on the conceptual questions.

One thing the researchers found when analyzing the data from the first trial was that the students who took notes with their laptops used more words in their notes and were much more likely to quote parts of the lecture verbatim. Thus, in their second trial, they instructed some of the students to specifically avoid trying to transcribe the lecture. They thought that this might reduce the problems associated with laptop-note-taking. However, there was only a small decrease in the verbatim content of the laptop users who were told to avoid it, and in the end, the same test results were found: the laptop-note-takers did worse on conceptual questions than the longhand-note-takers.

In the final trial, the researchers thought that perhaps the poorer performance of the laptop-note-takers could be improved by letting them study their notes. After all, if the notes contain more words and more verbatim content from the lecture, that should allow the students who use laptops to study more effectively. In this trial, however, the longhand-note-takers did even better compared to the laptop-note-takers! Those who were able to study their longhand notes outperformed those who studied their laptop notes in both factual and conceptual questions!

Here is how the authors sum up their results:

The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even — or perhaps especially — when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking. Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears.

I think that statement is instructive to students in two ways: First, stop using your laptop in class. It is likely to affect your performance negatively, even if you can avoid the distractions it presents. Second, even when you are taking notes longhand, don’t mindlessly transcribe content. Think about what you are learning and put it in your own words!

22 Comments

  1. CJL says:

    And then there are those of us who right so slow that we cannot keep up with the professor – AND who can’t think about writing notes and listen to what the prof is saying at the same time : )
    I guess that’s why I used Dr. Wile’s textbook/study guide in homeschool high school. You can always go back and read it again!

    1. CJL says:

      “Write,” not “right” 🙂 I told you I have problems when I try to write quickly!

    2. hsgram says:

      I know exactly how you feel. I have missed so many things being said/taught because I was concentrating on note writing, but then that happens to me on a laptop or by hand.

  2. James says:

    This is an interesting study and makes perfect sense. Students who use their laptop don’t have to think. Those who write long hand (slower) have to mentally process what is being said then condense it into something meaningful.

    My opinion as a student, not backed up by any studies of course, is that I find I can study best at home with the book. In general I don’t think I learn much from lecture. Being in physics, many times I can’t keep up with the instructor and it’s easier for me to go over the material at my own pace.

    I also generally don’t ask questions in class unless I have some reason for asking a question. Saying “can you repeat the last 5 minutes of lecture” isn’t really a good question.

    With a book or video I can always skip back 5 minutes and not feel like I’m wasting everyone else’s time.

  3. Cheri Fields says:

    I’ll have to remember this after my kids get proficient in typing. For me, much as the computer helps me connect with people, I’d far rather bring a pencil and notebook to a lecture, it’s just easier. But, until now, I would have put that down to being the kind of person who never remembers to take pictures or use most technology.
    Perhaps part of what’s happening is the sheer physicality of writing longhand. It would engage more of the brain. Plus, when you look over your notes, it is *you* you’re reading. Like a smell, it could well put your brain back into the state it was as you first wrote and reinforce the thoughts and emotions you were experiencing at the time.
    Highly practical advice. Thanks!

  4. Kathye Shuman says:

    An alternative might be a digital pen. I have one that I use for work. Uses regular paper, but then I can upload my notes to my computer and it converts my crazy handwriting into digital text, pretty accurately.

    1. jlwile says:

      I will have to look into one of those. Thanks for the tip,Kathye!

  5. Leigh says:

    These are very interesting findings, and I know I retain information better when I write my notes. However, this doesn’t mention if they considered learning disabilities in any of the studies. That would certainly skew the results. Typing is a better alternative for dyslexic, dysgraphic, and processing-disabled students, and is frequently used as a great classroom accommodation for them.

    1. jlwile says:

      That’s a good point!

  6. Jake says:

    I guess I have a lot to say about this…

    This is the kind of thing I enjoy about science: here’s an everyday phenomenon – taking notes via computer – and we can do tests on it to see how well humans are able to cope with it and how it affects the learning process. And for you this came out of an interesting side observation you made in the class you were teaching.

    But I’m confused that your students in particular were typing their notes: I would think that, for subjects that rely on visualizing things, typing notes just doesn’t work. You can’t type molecular structures without some sort of imaging package, and that’d take way too long. So what did these students do when Lewis structures showed up? When instructors draw figures I’ll write them down on a separate piece of paper and scan them into my notes later; did they do that? And what did they do with equations? Those are difficult to type, and general chemistry students aren’t usually proficient in TeX.

    I’m actually a big fan of typing notes: In an international politics lecture course I took my freshman year of undergrad, it was impossible to get down all the lecture content without typing it. After that I typed notes for every humanities course I took (except the workshop kind), and eventually – after I learned TeX – I taught myself to type math and science notes as well. Admittedly that’s off the deep end, and I imagine I did it mostly because it was an amusing idea (sometimes it takes longer than I’d like to format some equations, and it backfires if there are too many figures). It’s interesting that students typing were found to copy more of the lecture verbatim, because I’ve definitely noticed that I do that myself. Maybe I should stop typing things, because I’m not thinking enough!

    I guess that, having been in university academic programs approaching 9 years now, I think the most important thing to do taking a class is adopt an intelligent strategy: (1) read the relevant material before the lecture, (2) extract the conceptual reasoning – and whatever’s not in the reading material – from lectures rather than just whatever was written on the board (which is often not that useful), and (3) go over your notes afterwards. Naturally, (1) and (3) are hard to implement because they require a lot of discipline, and (2) requires you to understand what’s going on. So I guess the reason I prefer typing my notes is that, in my experience, what the instructor says is usually much more important than what he writes, and I can add my own commentary and questions much faster when I’m typing them. That way I don’t fall behind when I note what strikes me in a lecture. My typed notes tend to be like a mental snapshot: I can get a lot of what the instructor is saying and everything in my own mind. If I wrote my notes I’d focus on my own thinking and lose the instructor. Maybe I’m too far on the fringes to be a useful case…

    1. jlwile says:

      Jake, I really don’t know what they did with Lewis structures. That was covered in the next semester, which I didn’t teach. With equations, I suspect they used text equivalents, since that’s what several students did in their e-mails.

      Your three points are spot on.

  7. Wayne Twayne says:

    This information would be an interesting aspect to discussions advocating for the elimination of teaching cursive writing skills.

  8. Ok Jay, interesting study but it smacks of something the Mythbusters might have done. And that’s not a compliment. A person’s typing skill would be critical in this comparison. Someone who cannot type as fast as he can write is going to be at a disadvantage and I’m skeptical that the average student can do type that fast. And there was absolutely no mention of skill level.

    Also, as Jake pointed out above, a class involving anything requiring diagrams or equations would be very difficult for a typist/laptop user! What kind of course material were the students exposed to in this so-called study? There’s no mention. This is why I’m comparing it to a Mythbusters “experiment”.

    For my own self, the graduate level courses I take are in the Information Systems arena: programming, database courses, that sort of thing. These lend themselves pretty well to use of a laptop. Also, you know what? I’ve come to expect an outline of the lecture, either in powerpoint or some other format, where you can annotate the thing as the lecture progresses. To me, it’s the height of stupidity to forbid students to use a computer in a computer course! Several times I’ve had instructors say they don’t want people using laptops and after I talk to them they have always given permission. So that’s good but I vehemently am opposed to treating students like children and telling them HOW they are to take notes. That’s their business, not the instructor’s.

    To your credit you expressed this same sentiment and that’s cool. In a university environment I think it’s fine if the professor cautions students along these lines (i.e. that some studies show poorer performance when using laptops) and lays down rules about no emails, no games, no text messaging in class. Those things are just plain disrespectful to the professor in addition to being foolish. But then the student has to be allowed to make his own decisions.

    I ALWAYS drag my laptop to class with me and ALWAYS use it. I also usually shoot for, and get, the high water mark on any exams which is why I have a 4.0 GPA in all my graduate courses. Maybe they should have included me in their study.

    1. jlwile says:

      It’s definitely not something on the level of Mythbusters, Doug, because it uses serious statistical analysis, which the Mythbusters clearly don’t understand. In addition, it passed peer review in a major journal, something most Mythbuster projects would never be able to do.

      If you read the paper, you will see that your skepticism is not warranted. First, they specifically told students to use the same note-taking that they did in class. Thus, we are not talking about people with poor typing skills trying to take notes on a computer. I wouldn’t think a person with poor typing skills would use computers as a part of their normal note-taking. Also, look at their results: the people who used the computer ended up having more detailed notes with more words and more verbatim excerpts from the lectures. Thus, if anything, the computer note takers were faster than the longhand note takers. Indeed, that’s why the researchers did the third trial. They thought that the more detailed computer notes would be more beneficial if students were allowed to study them. They found that they were wrong.

      The lectures tested in the trials didn’t use diagrams or equations, so that issue wasn’t covered. However, as Jake pointed out, there are ways that computer note takers deal with that.

      I am sure they did include students like you in the study, Doug. After all, they used a wide range of students with a wide range of abilities, and they specifically chose some students who normally use the computer to take notes and some students who normally take notes longhand. The point is that such studies only can compare averages, and on average, computer note-taking is a detriment, as has been shown by the other studies they cite.

  9. Robert Byers says:

    is it possible long hand writers are better students? Writing in long hand being evidence. It requires speed, accuracy etc. The LT only requires typing. Could it be writers are more interested? THus more desiring the right thing to write. longhand can abbreviate better then in typing I think. Is there a male/female ratio showing like results?
    Maybe your right but variables are always sneaking around.

    1. jlwile says:

      That’s possible, Robert. Measuring intelligence is a bit tricky, however, so I am not sure how you would find that out.

      The authors didn’t separate out the results based on gender.

      1. Robert Byers says:

        I meant that long hand writing is actually, possibly, a clue to being sharper. I don’t agree there is such a thing as intelligence but anyways.
        I didn’t mean in a dumb way that long hand writers were smarter but that doing that is what smarter people can and would do.
        I could see myself thinking typing would be easier and long hand harder.
        I would see those kids as smarter.
        Long hand asks for more then typing ubxkuding speed while being attentive.

  10. David MacMillan says:

    I can attest that in math and hard science classes, I did remarkably better when I took handwritten notes than when I used a laptop. In most other classes, though, it was the reverse.

    The single biggest factor, I think, was lecture style. Professors who fill the board with virtually everything they’re saying needlessly clog the students’ capacity for getting good notes.

  11. I take handwritten notes electronically with a tablet. They’re handwritten, but I don’t have to manage all the paper, and they can be searched, too. It also solves the problem of drawing things like Lewis structures. I wonder how that would have compared to paper in this study.

  12. Anthea says:

    Hello Dr Jay

    Thank you so much for this blog post! I have read about this before in a science article which was mentioned in a home edding forum. However, I love the fact that you went into practical details, too.

    May I add that, as a mother who is giving her children a Living Education, I have begun to teach our 12-yr-old son lessons in notetaking. It is tagged on to his History reading, since this is his fave subject. He is given a different technique for each chapter — Mind Maps, Cornell, charts, lists, short questions, etc. The idea is that he can decide which style suits him before he enters the exam years. Few pupils are taught how to take notes, and just get loads of handouts or fill-in-the-blanks worksheets. This does not tell them how to think about notes.

    Next week he’ll be using a method specifically for History, called SPICE, to analyse a culture. Again, to make it less painful, I am basing it on the zenith of the Roman Empire.

    Thanks for the confirmation that is is worthwhile.

  13. Anthea says:

    Hey, Doug L. (commenting above)Your observations are first class. May I add one caveat? Judging by your pciture/avatar, you and I were educated old style, with paper and pen. You did not get lots of spoon-feeding, with handouts, overheads and such like. So, with already well-honed analytical skills, your mind will be running smoothly. No wonder your scores are good!

  14. Joe Todd says:

    Your conclusions fit well with a study done in Australia for 8th an 9th grade students who all received laptops. The researchers found that the use of laptops had a minimal impact on scientific understanding and, in some instances, students who used computers scored lower than students who did not.

    It appears that the value of summarizing and personalizing note taking that occurs when hand-writing notes becomes replaced with the desire to act as a kind of a court reporter, trying to record all of the instructor’s words. I would add that the presence of social media, with its instant notifications, would further distract students today.

    Still, there are ways to direct the use of computers in the classroom so that good note-taking and student participation can be increased. So I don’t think we need to have students abandon the use of computers altogether during lectures.