Take Notes, on a Laptop or Longhand, It Does Not Matter

A study showing longhand is better than typing has failed to replicate. So?

Posted Feb 22, 2021

Cub Kahn
Source: Cub Kahn

Misdirection.

Works like a charm. You get so caught up in something that you completely miss what is actually more important. Misdirection can thwart the nefarious plans of movie villains and sometimes (temporarily) prevent the heroine from saving the day. It also takes place in higher education

You may remember a well-publicized study that claimed the pen was mightier than the laptop- Essentially that students who took notes by hand did better on exams than those who used a laptop (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). This study is one of the most cited in recent history and led to faculty around the countryside banning students from using laptops in class. Here, finally, was empirical evidence for the benefits of taking notes longhand and something many faculty believed (and still believe). Stand back: A brand new study (Urry et al. 2021) failed to replicate that finding.  Will the pendulum swing with faculty being more open to laptops in class? Beware of misdirection. What is actually important is instructors need to foster note-taking, in whatever form it is done. But first, the replication.

So what did this new study really do?  In this lab study, the researchers had participants take notes with a laptop or a pen while they watched TED Talks. There was a delay during which the participants were distracted, followed by a quiz on the material from the talks. Undergraduate college students from Tufts University (a total of 145) volunteered for the study.  Each student watched one of the five talks. Sixty-eight students were told to take notes on a laptop, and 74 took notes via longhand. Students were predominantly third-year students and 62 percent identified as female.  Each talk lasted about 15 minutes, and the quiz was partly recall of facts and part application. That’s not all. The researchers also looked at other similar studies on the topic.

What did they find? There was no difference in how well the students performed on the factual recall questions as a function of how they took notes. This was similar to the 2014 study. The difference, and failure to replicate, came when Urry et al. analyzed performance on the applied questions. Again, there was no difference in scores based on note-taking style (see Figures). Students who used a laptop did write down more words. Yes, when using a laptop, students also recorded more of the lecture directly (a higher overlap).

Urry et al. (2021) also found 8 similar studies, that also aimed to replicate the 2014 results.  The studies compared also used similar methodologies with slight variations. The effect of taking notes longhand was not statistically significant.

What does this mean for you?  This small body of lab-based studies suggests instructors need not be concerned about what students are using to take notes. When students use a laptop to take notes, they may write down more words, and more directly record what they are hearing, but this does not necessarily mean they do better on exams. It does not mean they do worse either. Let us not be misdirected.

The research discussed is primarily lab-based and cannot capture many ways that real classrooms (remote or in-person) operate. Instructors speak at different speeds, have slides that vary in how much content is presented, the use of questioning, discussion, and active learning, and in the balance of fact sharing versus skill development.

The bigger point is this:  Students should take notes, a major item on lists of academic tips. None of the studies above have a comparison condition where the students are not taking notes. In many classes and especially during the pandemic with remote learning, students do not take good (or any) notes. In fact, note-taking is a key example of self-regulation: Students decide when something is important, recording the information, then use the notes to assess their understanding as they revise notes and then review for an exam. According to cognitive science, notes help you with four major learning goals: selection, construction, integration, and acquisition. These four goals serve the greater purpose of helping students encode the material for storage.

Let’s not forget another critical point. Laptops can be distracting. In one study, students using laptops only spent 37 percent of the time on class-related work (Ragan et al., 2014).

All in all, there is no clear evidence to support one form of note-taking over another. Our time as educators (and parents) would be better spent showing students how to take good notes, instead of focusing too much on the medium.

References

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2018). “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking”: Corrigendum. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1565–1568.  

Ragan, E. D., Jennings, S. R., Massey, J. D., & Doolittle, P. E. (2014). Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes. Computers & Education, 78, 78–86.

Urry, H. L., et al.(2021). Don’t ditch the laptop just yet: A direct replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) study 1 plus mini-meta-analyses across similar studies. Psychological Science.