Back in graduate school, I was a TA for one of the most effective college level instructors I had ever seen. She was also, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the best and most self-disciplined students I had ever seen. She was finishing her Ph.D. when I was getting my master's, so I had a chance to observe her process up close.
Her notes were particularly valued by other students. At the beginning of every semester, there would be a rush to her office to borrow the appropriate binders. The notes were compiled through a two-step process: during class she would attentively take detailed notes. She would also make audio recordings; after class she would make a second set of notes based on both her original notes and the recordings.
I was reminded of this when I came across article from SA which looks into the effectiveness of different methods of note-taking. It also raises some important questions about the role of technology in the classroom.
A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop
When it comes to college students, the belief that more is better may underlie their widely-held view that laptops in the classroom enhance their academic performance. Laptops do in fact allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, collaborate more easily on papers and projects, access information from the internet, and take more notes. Indeed, because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write out their notes by hand. Moreover, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor.
Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date. Only it isn’t. New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more. Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand. As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes. In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.
What drives this paradoxical finding? Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.
To evaluate this theory, Mueller and Oppenheimer assessed the content of notes taken by hand versus laptop. Their studies included hundreds of students from Princeton and UCLA, and the lecture topics ranged from bats, bread, and algorithms to faith, respiration, and economics. Content analysis of the notes consistently showed that students who used laptops had more verbatim transcription of the lecture material than those who wrote notes by hand. Moreover, high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material. It appears that students who use laptops can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion, with little analysis or synthesis by the brain. This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote a meaningful understanding or application of the information.
These findings hold important implications for students who use their laptops to access lecture outlines and notes that have been posted by professors before class. Because students can use these posted materials to access lecture content with a mere click, there is no need to organize, synthesize or summarize in their own words. Indeed, students may take very minimal notes or not take notes at all, and may consequently forego the opportunity to engage in the mental work that supports learning.
Beyond altering students’ cognitive processes and thereby reducing learning, laptops pose other threats in the classroom. In the Mueller and Oppenheimer studies, all laptops were disconnected from the internet, thus eliminating any disruption from email, instant messaging, surfing, or other online distractions. In most typical college settings, however, internet access is available, and evidence suggests that when college students use laptops, they spend 40% of class time using applications unrelated to coursework, are more likely to fall off task, and are less satisfied with their education. In one study with law school students, nearly 90% of laptop users engaged in online activities unrelated to coursework for at least five minutes, and roughly 60% were distracted for half the class.