The Laptop vs. Notebook Debate

compHere’s a link to a brief story describing the study I mentioned in a lecture in Week 2 regarding how taking notes via laptop differs, cognitively speaking, from taking notes by hand.

14 years ago when I started at Tufts, I’d say less than half of each class had a laptop with them.  Today, when I look out at the lecture hall, I see an army of hundreds of glowing apples staring back at me.

So what do you make of this argument that note-taking by laptop leads to lower-effort cognitive processes?  Do you buy the research finding?  Are you tempted to change your own note-taking strategies, at least for in-person classes?  Why or why not?

Based on this research, as well as complaints from students that they found other people’s laptop use distracting to them during class (sort of the second-hand smoke argument), I banned laptops for the first time in PSY 13 two years ago.  Another factor in this decision was the downside of multi-tasking, as I know I can’t be trusted to pay attention and engage when I have my laptop/phone available.  The no-laptop rule seemed to go pretty well this past spring in my class.  But what do you think about such rules and about this particular study?

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35 Responses to The Laptop vs. Notebook Debate

  1. Profile photo of bpastr01 bpastr01 says:

    While taking notes on my laptop is easier, I agree with the idea that taking notes by hand actually requires me to process the information, as I don’t have time to write it all down and keep up with lecture. I have to pull out key points. I’d say the research has pretty high face validity for that reason. It just makes sense to me. In other classes with a “no laptop rule,” I’ve found that I do fairly well. Whether that’s from my better encoding of the material in class or the fact that I typed up the notes after each lecture because I like my notes to be organized and backed up on my laptop, I’m not sure. Either way, it worked out pretty well.

    • Profile photo of Alison Hoi Alison Hoi says:

      I agree with this. When I am hand-writing notes, I find myself continuously processing and filtering the information, which to me, feels like a much more active form of mental engagement than mindlessly typing every word I hear. As “annoying” as it may seem to have a no screens rule in a classroom, I find that professors that enforce it are better able to capture the attention of their students.

    • You mention encoding as a key to using pen/paper over a laptop to take notes. I would agree that summarizing helps one to better encode the info, but I wonder if it matters when that encoding happens. For example, I often take notes on my laptop because I like to get down as much information as I can for courses that do not offer access to powerpoint after the lectures. Then after taking notes on my laptop, a day or two later I will summarize the notes by hand. It seems to work for me, but I wonder if anyone has ever tested whether the encoding of the information is affected by a delay in summarizing and processing the material? Maybe the key is to put the information into your own words, but it doesn’t matter whether you do it during class or at a later point.

  2. Katherine Rose Alpert says:

    This research does not surprise me. I’m often tempted to take notes on my computer, because doing so leaves me with more cognitive energy. However, the *post-class brain ache* is the point, I suppose. I wonder whether taking notes in a sketch-book, on blank paper, would improve test scores over notebook paper. If it is the higher level encoding that helps with comprehension, maybe this blank slate approach would have an effect here.

  3. Profile photo of Ki Jung Lee Ki Jung Lee says:

    I think benefits of taking notes by hand or laptop depend on kinds of course. As I taking organic chemistry and biochemistry class, it is much better and easier to take notes by hand. Those kinds of classes require lots of drawing of compounds and pathways that consume lots of time to do on the laptop. Also, I personally found it more helpful to take hand written notes when a professor posts lecture notes before the lecture. This way allowed me to focus on professor’s speech without attempting to copy down all of verbatim. Then, I could add information on the printed pre-lecture page more efficiently. This method allowed me to think about material and come up with questions during the lecture to ask right after the class (short questions). In classes that do not post the lecture beforehand, I found laptop to be much easier method to record my notes. Without the pre-lecture note, the speed of copying down professor’s words and powerpoint lecture at the same time really helped me studying. Without knowing any structure of the contents of the upcoming lecture, I could not decide what facts are important or not to include on my notes. In these cases, I was able to keep my notes organized way, in which I could easily find the contents that I wanted to revisit. Thus, the study should be performed on condition in which professor provided pre-lecture note or not to see the effect of taking note by hand or laptop.

    • Lucy B. Ren says:

      I agree with this. I think that it depends on the material being taught and what is offered beforehand. For classes that require diagrams and equations, I always handwrite my notes. When classes do provide pre-lecture handouts, I find it more feasible to hand write my notes. However, if these handouts aren’t provided, then I tend to type my notes simply because it’s the most feasible way to record all the information given. I have noticed that I put more thought into the material when I’m handwriting my notes and remember the material better this way. For some classes though, trying to write my notes by hand results in more frustration because I simply cannot follow the lecture effectively this way. Therefore, I think that it’s a balance between the materials given before lecture and what type of class it is.

    • Holden says:

      Additionally, I find it more beneficial to type out my notes in essay-based courses. After I type out the lecture, which allows me to take down more notes, I feel more prepared to write the essay with more information at hand–that’s when I decide to exert my cognitive energy.

    • Profile photo of jstone08 jstone08 says:

      I think the course type is extremely dependent. I went a step further with a course I took last semester, COMP 160. In the class, the professor supplied detailed notes about a week before class. This gave one ample time to learn or attempt to learn the material before class. The actual lecture would act as a sort of baking or solidify of the knowledge. I think there were two variables at play here for me. 1) Having multiple exposures to the material was beneficial, and 2) going to class without the anxiety of the note taking process allowed me to relax and comfortably follow and understand my mental road map I had already established for the day’s lecture.

  4. Rachel Lai says:

    Taking notes by hand definitely forces me to be more mindful of the material, but I don’t think that’s always the most important factor to consider. Sometimes when I’m barely awake in my 8:30am class, it simply works better to type out everything the professor says and process the information later in the day. Taking notes by hand won’t improve my learning if I’m missing half of the facts because my morning coffee hasn’t yet kicked in. In classes that allow laptops, I’ll admit I get distracted. While I don’t surf the Internet per se, it’s very tempting to check that new email or respond to that message I was waiting for. However, having a lot to do forces me to stay alert, and I really don’t think I miss out on that much information either. I also think the method of note-taking depends on the material being covered. I have taken a lot of math classes, and typing out all those numbers and equations would not be faster than writing them down. These findings are interesting, but it’s not convincing enough for me to change my study habits. Every student responds differently to strategies, so I think it’s more important to find what works for yourself. Taking notes on my laptop and checking that occasional email might not be the most effective way to learn, but it has served me well in the past, and as long as I am satisfied with my academic performance, I don’t feel the need to change my habits based on every new piece of research.

    • Thanawan Wongsanguan says:

      I agreed with you that the method of note-taking depends on the material being covered and on personal preferences. Everyone learn differently and the strategies that work best for one person might not work well for another. Therefore the most important thing is to find what works best for you and do that. Maybe it is best not to ban the use of laptop in classes and allow students with any preferred note taking they want.

      • Yasie Nejad says:

        I completely agree. Banning laptops wouldn’t be effective for students who find taking notes on laptops working well for them. I think reading articles about the topic and trying out different methods is extremely beneficial.

        • Holden says:

          You can’t just say that “banning laptops wouldn’t be effective for students who find taking notes on laptops working well for them” because the science says otherwise. One would have to completely embrace the note-taking-by-hand methods to fully understand its possibility and the only way to do this is if a teacher were to ban laptops. Simply “trying it out” limits one’s exposure to the real effects.

          • I have to respectfully disagree, as the fact that computers or technology in general inhibit the retention of note taking is true only in certain conditions.

            For example, if students have more time they are willing to devote for a certain course, they can look at the typed notes taken during the lecture and then can write out an abridged form of the typed lecture notes in their free time. It is like the typed notes are a suitcase which can be opened at any other time, but in order for the contents to be useful, the suitcase must be opened at some point in time. In this case, I think it is a useful way of reviewing the notes taken during lecture at night.

  5. Thanawan Wongsanguan says:

    I agreed with this as well. When I take note by hand I felt like I am more conscious of what I am writing down and have a better understanding of the material at the end of the lecture. For me, writing by hand takes more time than typing therefore, I would always summarize main points covered and write them down. Moreover, I am a visual learner and taking note by hand facilitates my learning because I can draw diagrams that helps me make sense of the material covered. When I get bored during lecture, I would draw pictures that still reflects the material being taught. However, I noticed that when people who use laptop to take note get bored in lecture, they normally open up Facebook, Buzzfeed, youtube etc. and once that happens it’s hard to stay focus and switch back to taking notes.

    • swhite13 says:

      I agree with Thanawan, especially with the last point. Typically when I use my laptop in a relatively large lecture, my diligent note-taking focus lasts around twenty minutes. I, along with many peers close to me, will use laptops in class only when we feel comfortable with the material. For several people I know, the act of being physically present in class is enough in their minds to justify the lack of mental focus. Of course, this is not applicable to all students, but this has been the experience with people I am close with.

    • Alexander Milstein says:

      Yes, I agree , sometimes laptops can be a real distraction for me . Especially, if I do not understand something or am not interested in the material. I would not bother to try harder to understand , I will just think to myself “I will read the material after class , will find an explanation in the book or on the web”. So the rest of the lecture, instead of trying to understand what professor is saying , I would give up on the first puzzling moment and just use the laptop for either news reading or chatting with friends etc . I will not pay attention to what is going on in class anymore . Whereas , if there was no laptop , I would not have a choice , but to listen to professor . But that is my subjective opinion.

  6. Yasie Nejad says:

    I think that the effectiveness of note-taking differs per person. Personally, I find that hand-writing notes would much better for me and so when possible, it’s the method that I use. However, I find it to be a lot quicker to type notes so when I have a professor that has a lot to cover in a short amount of time, I usually type them on my laptop and then after class, re-read them to make sure that I understand the material. I think laptops have the potential to create a distraction in class, if you let them. It’s tempting to browse the web or check social media during class. It’s all about personal preference and trying out different methods to see what works best for you in each situation!

    • Will Guerry says:

      I agree that the effectiveness of note-taking differs given the particular person and the particular class. It’s not a hard-fast rule that taking notes by hand is necessarily always more effective; however, I think it does seem clear that ~generally~ taking notes by hand is more effective. We can say that those who take notes by hand generally tend to perform better academically, while simultaneously acknowledging that the effectiveness differs per person to a degree. So yes you should see what works best for you in each situation, but we can successfully predict that taking notes by hand will probably be most effective, regardless of the particulars involved.

  7. Alexander Milstein says:

    For me personally, being not an English native speaker , taking notes by hand sometimes is very hard , as translating and summing up teacher’s explanation in brief words is harder when the language is not your primary one . It is easier for me just to simply type word by word what teacher is saying and after lecture reread the notes and analyze them without rushing, taking my time . Furthermore, sometimes , when professor is explaining something fast , my handwriting becomes unrecognizable even to me, because I am starting to write too fast and less clearly. After the lectures , when I read the notes I am unable to interpret what I wrote , whereas when I am taking notes on the laptop there is no such problem ( the font is always the same and recognizable , there is even autocorrect function, if you mistype something due to rushing ) . However , back in my home country – Russia , when I was at school , everyone took notes by hand , including myself and for me it was more beneficial and rewarding , I memorized information that I wrote much better . So to sum up my opinion , for non –native speakers and for people who have bad handwriting , taking notes maybe not the best option. Whereas for native speakers it is a great cognitive tool to memorize and analyze information better and more efficiently .

  8. Holden says:

    Ideally, class is the perfect environment to use cognitive energy. It’s also the most conducive environment to create excuses to take an easier approach. Even though these studies exist, so many people still use their computers, which says a ton about the student’s interest. It says students would rather get through the material than embrace the material. I find this to be a similar study to the way people approach school, at many levels, especially in the US. We have all of this information that will lead us to better, more efficient, approaches, yet will still settle for an easier, more conventional path.

  9. I believe note taking via laptop is comparable to automatic cognitive thought process as the result of your thoughts being almost instantaneous and barely any of us have to pause to think how to use a mouse and pay attention where we are moving the mouse to click on screen. I believe taking note by laptop opposed to taking notes by hand is much less conducive to learning and memory as it is arguably detached form of expression. However the study doesnt really answer the question of doing both simultaneously. I have an ipad where I will write with a stylus by hand and can later change to typing if I feel it would be faster at the moment. What would happen to your cognition by having to switch back and forth.

    • I agree with your point that taking notes by hand would promote people to absorb the material more effectively. When I was memorizing SAT vocabularies, I used to spell each of them out for about 10 times on scratch paper while reciting them. And the mere act of repetitively handwriting them had definitely helped!

      Upon your idea of combining them (which is very interesting!), I also wonder if people still took notes by typing, but actually went back to their notes for review after each lecture might ameliorate typing’s otherwise disadvantage compared to writing, as mentioned above.

  10. Will Guerry says:

    I think that our computers are ultimately so deeply embedded in our social lives and so often used for entertainment purposes that just using the computer as a note-taking device is challenging—we’ve been conditioned to use it for non-academic purposes and its very easy to just kind of “find” that your on facebook or elsewhere on the internet. Also it’s generally very easy to get away with using your computer for something other than note-taking during class, so there’s a certain anonymity that makes it easier to be distracted by your computer’s other functions. Taking notes by hand forces you to summarize and elucidate concepts in your own words, which requires you to actually have an understanding of the concepts, rather than just repeating the words used to represent the concepts. From a first-person perspective, when you just transcribe a lecture, you hear the words but your not necessarily engaging with the content of the words.

  11. As a person who has sloppier handwriting, in a larger lecture class, I would not feel as comfortable asking the professor to go back to the previous slide to copy the notes down each time the class moves onto the next slide, so I tend to rely on jotting down notes as fast as possible. This therefore makes my own notes harder to subsequently read when reviewing notes or studying for exams. While this doesn’t become the end of the world for me, taking notes on a computer makes reviewing notes much easier for me.

    Additionally, since technology is evolving, I see some people in my classes using a tablet computer which can either be used with a stylus pen to write or as a computer to type. Although this still allows for distractions to be present while taking notes, it allows the student to take notes in a style depending on what is being taught. For example, in a math class, the student could draw diagrams with the pen while in a history class he or she could instead type out the historical notes on the tablet computer.

  12. It is important to note that the tone of this article is incredibly biased. It sounds like this author really wants pen and paper to be the best way to take notes and therefore is not very skeptical. It sounds like a large part of this study is whether or not notes were taken down verbatim and therefore another study should be conducted where pen and paper note takers are instructed to write everything down verbatim. This may tell us more about whether or not people write down notes word for word or if they paraphrase.

  13. Profile photo of Kavya Boorgu Kavya Boorgu says:

    I found it interesting how they researchers chose to evaluate the effectiveness of the two note-taking methods. Factual and conceptual recall are pretty broad measures, that although show preliminary supposed advantages to written notes, might not be reflective of the way different college level courses are evaluated. For example, in one of my classes last year the lecture notes were purely diagrams with no text and the professor lectured non-stop and in precise detail. My approach was to basically transcribe what he said. When it came to revising for the exam, I was studying with a friend who had taken hand written notes. I found myself answering a lot of questions on specific, yet important, details that she had completely missed. And, these specific details were crucial to answering exam questions. Of course, the sample size here is just me, and this outcome was the case for that one professor, but I do think such variations should be taken into account more. Perhaps a meta analysis of multiple subjects (ex. what works for organic chemistry might not for a philosophy course) should be carried out. Furthermore, more kinds of evaluations of how much was retained should be carried out.
    Overall though, reading that article did make me want to stop relying on computers for so much of my note taking. I do agree that it is very easy to only half listen and still write down all the information relayed to you, which in the long run is not the best for retaining material.

  14. Greg Lehrhoff says:

    I think the research finding is valid, and I have a hypothesis why pen-and-paper note taking might be more effective than laptop note taking.

    My theory is this: pen and paper integrates a spacial component into the information better than a laptop does. So, for visual learners like myself, a student is likely to remember a little note he drew in the margin, or something he wrote in all caps, or a word that he misspelled over and over, or an illegible word whose meaning he eventually deciphered. Computers offer a much more streamlined approach, which is efficient in terms of reading and writing large amounts of information, but pen and paper force a lot more of your idiosyncrasies into your notes. Sometimes I remember something just because I can kind of see it in my mind’s eye, written in the upper left hand corner of my page. Text comes out squarely and standardized though, so you are missing out on a lot of those cues.

  15. I personally like taking notes with lap tops better, because I think it goes along with my thinking process. My mind is extremely sporadic—it very frequently leaps from one thought to another without finalizing either of them. If any of you had seen the movie survival: I to an extent empathize the way the heptapod aliens think and talk—in a non-chronologically-linear way.

    Therefore, I constantly need to quickly jot down some broken thoughts on my lap top for later revisits and rearrange my sentences at quick changes of my logic. In this way, typing is much easier for me, because, firstly: it is a lot faster and writing, and secondly, it allows me to quickly delete and recompose my thoughts—while it’s a lot harder to erase and rewrite with pencil, and even harder with pens.

    However, I do admit that hearing other people typing indeed could be stressful. Because it almost puts everyone, wittingly or unwittingly, in a scenario of competition, and possible results in people thinking, “oh my gosh, s/he’s typing much faster / more than I am, could it be that I’m not understanding the lecture correctly or that I’m missing out on certain information?”

    Although there are inevitable downsides about typing, but I still personally prefer it more than writing.

    • Olympe Nalbandian says:

      You’re right about the competition that occurs when dozens of people are typing at once! The clicking sounds of the keys and the fact that one worries about the length of their notes compared to their peers’ is a huge distraction and can completely take away from what the Professor is saying.
      But, I can understand why you would choose typing over writing, as you can decide later on what content best suits you due to the fact that you have a lot of content to work with in the first place.

  16. I find it ironic that the research actually found that multi-tasking often lengthened the time participants took to complete tasks. I have found in my note-taking with laptops that nearly every time I take notes on a computer I end up multi-tasking. Whether it be checking scores, messages, or emails, it is almost impossible to stay focused solely on the lecture taking notes on a computer. Personally, I think the process of manually transcribing and creating characters simply forces a student to focus more on what information they are processing and noting. Manuscript is also a more intimate process, I often find myself underlining important points, drawing arrows to connected concepts and putting small notes in the margins. I would not be surprised if all of this contributes to better memory.

    However, in my experience reading notes can still be effective when taken on a laptop. Perhaps the process of reading something and then clicking away to transfer that information to a separate document helps retain information in a way a class setting does not.

  17. Olympe Nalbandian says:

    I agree with the policy Prof. Sommers made for the in-class Psych 13 course. I agree with it for multiple reasons, with the conclusion of the laptop vs. notebook study being the main reason. Although one can transcribe more text per minute by typing, I find it to require less cognitive processing, comprehension and the rush that one feels to type as many words as possible results in a poorer understanding of the main concepts as compared to longhand note-taking. Personally, I feel like I subconsciously compensate for the fact that I can only write so fast and have to be selective with the bullet points I make while sitting in a fast-paced lecture. I consider this to be a positive thing and engages my mind more. Another component to the idea of taking notes on a laptop is definitely the opportunity for distraction that it creates. It is not just students or kids who can be blamed for this, adults get distracted as well. Maybe the novelty of computers and iPads and keyboards and the like is just so intriguing to the human race that we just can’t help ourselves? Also, as we all know, computers and the internet can connect us with the outside world even while sitting in lecture so it can be tempting for students to zone out of what the Professor is saying to entertain themselves.
    For me, something about a physical sheet of paper seems to create a mental link with books and studying and gets me more focused. Overall, I personally find longhand note-taking to be much more beneficial and valuable when learning new material, using it to extract the main points and studying for exams. I agree with the no laptop policy Prof. Sommers created and am not that surprised by the study’s findings.

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