Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

Need to Remember Something? There's No App for That

New studies that should change our assumptions about technology.

Nota bene is Latin for “note well” or, in our vernacular, we might phrase it as “take note.” This entry is a variation on these phrases: To wit, how should we take notes?

The mechanics of note taking may not seem like a big deal. In our time, the issue is well defined: Should you write with pen or pencil? Or, given the ubiquity of laptops, iPhones, and tablet devices, should one type notes during a class or a meeting? The latest smart devices also allow us to record material, say, a professor lecturing, or to download material like PowerPoint slides. 

In other words, our decision is whether to be scribes or embrace our digital tools. (Technically, being a scribe is also possible with technology, as some tablet devices allow you to “write” in your hand on the screen, which software then “reads” and converts into typed notes.)

Does it really matter which method one chooses? 

It does, perhaps a great deal.

Two Princeton psychologists, Pam Mueller and David Oppenheimer, wondered whether using laptops for note taking might come with some pitfalls not associated with using pen and paper. They wondered if typing on a laptop might lead to a more shallow form of information processing and lessened learning than the older, more traditional method of note taking. In other words, taking notes with a pen or pencil on paper might require deeper cognitive processing as one translated concepts into one’s own words than doing so with a laptop.

To explore this hypothesis, the researchers conducted various experiments, most of which relied on similar methodology: Students were assigned to classrooms where they either used laptops or traditional notebooks. Both groups heard the same lectures and both groups were told to use their usual note-taking approaches. About a half-our after the lecture, all the students were given an in-class test on the material. Here’s an important point: The students were examined for their memory in two ways—for factual recall (What year did the Titanic sink?) and conceptual material (Explain how the study of physical anthropology differs in content and scope from cultural anthropology).

What did they find? The students using the laptops tended to take more notes but they were more likely to take verbatim notes—a relatively mindless activity with fewer benefits than putting ideas and concepts into one’s own terms. In the end, while both groups of students worked to learn the same set of facts, the laptop group performed much worse on the recall test. 

And here’s the real clincher: Another study in the series found that students who wrote in longhand and had time to study their notes in preparation for an exam did significantly better than other students in the experiment—including the crack typists who actually wrote much more, or the exceptional student stenographers who transcribed virtually the whole lecture.

The traditional writers wrote fewer notes with less transcribing than the laptop users, and they still scored higher on tests of factual learning and higher-order thought—that is, wrestling with concepts. Even when laptop note takers were explicitly told not to transcribe the lectures word-for-word, they showed no improvement—it seems the association with transcribing when typing is too hard to override.

What’s the lesson here? At least one old way of note taking may be superior to newer, faster ways of taking notes. At your next staff meeting or class, take notes with pen and paper. A digital device may seem easier, faster, even better, but only for the task of note taking, not the crucial consequences—learning, retaining, and using knowledge. 

 

(Many people bewail the loss of penmanship skills and the new generation’s relative inability to write using cursive, with all those flowing letters. I think losing cursive is a loss, though perhaps not in my case—my handwriting is abysmal. To be fair, even my printing using block letters—unless I really take my time, an act that does not lend itself to teaching using a blackboard—is pretty abysmal. The highpoint of my handwriting career was back in second grade when I won “honorable mention” for “most improved penmanship”—surely, the booby prize for handwriting—so, yes, my cursive was never/is not now a thing of beauty.)

Nota bene!

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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