Family & Education

When Taking Notes, the Hand Still Reigns Supreme

The allure of convenience and speed promised by typing comes at a cost in terms of memory and academic achievement, research suggests
BY Matthew John TIMEMay 26, 2022 PRINT

Evernote. OneNote. Notability. Agenda. Ulysses. Supernote. Mobiscribe. Day One. Moleskine Journey.

Oodles of note-taking apps now populate the Mac and Windows ecospheres, while an ever-swelling array of tablets, laptops, and e-ink notepads have sprung up on which to use them. The lot seems to grow only more feature-rich—and attractive—by the day. (I’ve taken more than my fair share for a spin, admittedly.)

The options for going digital with your note-taking have never been more plentiful, if not tempting.

But if deep learning and long-term retention of information is your primary concern (students of the world, that’s you!), you might do well to balk at the convenience. As it turns out, old-school beats new: Pen and paper look to be your best bet.

‘Mile Wide and Inch Deep’

A growing body of research is finding that digital notetaking, while attractive for its speed and convenience (e.g., syncing across devices), comes at a cost: both learning and retention of information suffer for it. What the medium allows for in speed (over 100 wpm isn’t unheard of on the keyboard), it lacks in depth. It’s the proverbial “mile wide and inch deep,” it would seem.

For me, the topic is charged with personal meaning, going back to two distinct chapters in my life.

My undergrad days in college were spent scrawling away with pen on paper whatever the occasion—lecture classes, seminars, jotting down reading notes, journaling.

And sure, it came with its minor inconveniences. A slow (but steady) hand. Laboring to integrate reading and lecture notes onto the same page (which meant copying the two over). The sometimes misplaced binder.

But the thing was this: what I wrote out stuck. I could remember it. Not just minutes or hours later, but days and weeks. There was a kind of tacky, glue-like adherence to those notes. They had personality. They had character. Each word, line, and page took on its own shape and vibe.

And things popped from the page. Key points were circled or underlined with three well-imprinted lines; arrows called all-due attention to facts not to be forgotten.

Those pages, though I knew it not at the time, were drawn like a battle plan against forgetfulness.

It also didn’t hurt that I valued them more, crafted as they were by my own hand. They were much like an extension of me on the page. A lot of thought and care went into what I put down—be it scrawling scientific formulas during class or capturing the meat of Anselm’s masterful proofs of God while pouring over his work.

These notes didn’t come cheap, even if the paper cost but a buck.

Fast forward to my graduate school days, and it was to the laptop that I often turned—so ubiquitous, light, and convenient had it become. It was all you needed in your bag. Pop it open and you had the equivalent of five binders on your lap, not to mention the vast expanse of the burgeoning internet.

And man could I bang out lecture notes fast (a tribute to a high school typing class, many years before). I could pretty much keep pace with my instructor’s remarks, capturing them nearly verbatim.

And reading notes? Likewise light lifting. Why bother to summarize a page when I could just type out, word for word, full paragraphs at lightning speed. It was exhilarating in a sense, feeling that you could “capture” it all.

The only problem was, it was a fleeting high. Or fleeting learning, I should say.

Things just didn’t stick like they had before. It wasn’t about time on task—I was putting in just as many hours—or about studying methods—as I was only savvier than in my youth, if anything.

It was the medium, I slowly but only later came to realize.

The digital notes I was taking—however exhaustive—just weren’t the same. (A lesson I’ve only recently learned, once again, in the world of digital versus paper daily planners.)

Research Findings

Fast forward to the present, when I’m the one delivering the instruction, and I strongly urge—or even cajole, if need be—my students to turn back the clock and stick with the tried and true pen-and-paper approach.

While it might not be the game-changer for everyone that it was for me, recent studies have shed light on my own experiences and those of colleagues who have reminisced similarly.

The heart of the digital note-taking issue (and here I’m referring to typing) seems to be the different cognitive processes that it entails.

According to some fascinating and well-conceived research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, students who write out their notes actually learn more.

The pair had students in two different groups taking notes either by hand or with a laptop in a classroom setting, and then tested them to see the relative effects of each.

While those who took notes on their laptops did manage to record more information (thanks to their typing speed, much like I experienced), it came at a price. Those in the by-hand group scored better on subsequent tests (though working off fewer notes).

The researchers assessed several different types of learning, including factual detail, conceptual understanding, and ability to generalize and synthesize information studied.

Where the difference really showed, Mueller and Oppenheimer found, was in the realm of understanding. Students who took notes by hand had a better conceptual grasp of the class material, as well as a better ability to apply and integrate that learning.

The use of the laptop “impaired learning,” as the researchers describe it, because its use “results in shallower processing.”

In other words, students don’t think as much when taking notes on a computer; they just peck away, racing to keep up with the spoken word and capture it all.

Simple take-home: Less is more when it comes to notes. Old school beats new.

And we haven’t even touched on the startling studies that have found that roughly 90 percent of students in a given class will use their laptops for online activities that have no relevance to class—with nearly 60 percent being distracted for fully half the class. Needless to say, academic performance suffers for it.

So, if you want to remember what you just read, please, by all means, jot it down … but just be sure to do it by hand.

Matthew John is a veteran teacher and writer who is passionate about history, culture, and good literature. He lives in New York.
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