Keyboard vs Pen in The Classroom

March 12, 2017

“…which is explained really well in “The Life of Vertebrates” by J.Z. Young, sadly now out of print.” Barely had the words left my lecturer's mouth and a copy of the third edition in “good condition” was winging its way to me from AbeBooks (the second hand booksellers), ordered online during a lecture - so no wasted study time.  “Wow, I’m an awesomely keen student” I thought to myself. Meanwhile the lecture had progressed on to, well I don’t know what, something complicated about fish I think.


Technology can clearly be a distraction in the classroom and yet more and more students are using laptops to take notes during lectures.  Typing is faster (for most students) than writing and so more notes can be taken (improved "external-storage capacity").  A study of students taking notes whilst watching various TED talks observed that these notes apart from having a higher word count, included more verbatim information than notes taken by hand. You might think this would be a good thing. Notes written by hand contained fewer words and less verbatim content than those taken on laptops (even when laptop users were told to avoid taking notes verbatim).  However, it is likely that more processing takes place during longhand note taking, leading to greater learning and retention ("encoding").  Test results of factual and conceptual retention and understanding of students showed longhand note takers performed better on conceptual-application questions (and equally well as laptop users on factual-recall questions). Note takers also out performed laptop recorders on factual and conceptual topics when returning a week later and given 10 minutes to study their notes.

The point here – take notes with a good old fashioned pen and paper and think about the material as you write to ensure the best chance of retaining and understanding information. 


The research doesn’t discuss the purpose of note taking, but something to consider is “Why are we taking notes?”  Accuracy and completeness may be vital if taking notes in a court room for example, however reading an academic journal article is reading with a particular purpose (or purposes). Comprehension, retention, critique and comparison all are going on, and so a method of note taking that more effectively facilitates our purpose seems to be a sensible choice.


I’d be interested to see if these results are similar for note taking from a journal paper (as most of the material I need to process and retain is in this form), but until I hear otherwise, I’m going to review my choice of medium for taking notes. 


Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M., 2014. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), pp.1159–1168




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