The Value of Note-taking: Laptop versus Ink?

paper-pen-laptop image

Do you ever ask yourself why you have students take notes in class? Do you plan out what you hope they will write and then how they will use these notes later? Obviously we want our students to learn material we think is important. If they are writing it down they at least have the required material. But are there tangible benefits of note-taking and in this age of computers is note-taking better done by using a laptop or ink?

This area became of interest to me when I was recently asked if a student could have my notes for the semester and if not, could I secure a fellow student who might be a more efficient note taker to provide notes for this student. The request made me reflect on note-taking and wonder if there is not more value to the process than simply making sure you have the notes from class and I also wondered if my no-laptop policy was a hindrance for some note takers?

I began my quest asking a trusted colleague for her opinion. She put me on to an interesting blog post that led me to more literature and a recent study undertaken on this specific issue. Below are some of the highlights of what I found that might make you ponder the role of note-taking in your course and whether you want students to use laptops or ink.

Wray Herbert’s report in The Huffington Post (2014) titled “Ink on Paper: Some Notes on Note-taking,” summarizes several experiments undertaken by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer examining note-taking via laptops versus traditional notebooks. Their results are to be published in a forthcoming Psychological Science issue. In the research they assessed amount of note-taking and type of notes as well as short and long term recall and factual versus conceptual learning. The findings suggest handwritten note-taking is a superior technique to typing notes on a laptop across most outcome measures. Specifically, Herbert summarizes the main results indicating that while more notes were taken using a laptop:

“Those who took notes in longhand, and were able to study, did significantly better than any of the other students in the experiment – better even than the fleet typists who had basically transcribed the lectures. That is, they took fewer notes overall with less verbatim recording, but they nevertheless did better on both factual learning and higher-order conceptual learning.”

Prior research on note-taking would suggest that note taking encourages encoding and recall of material, but that verbatim note takers score lower on tests than students who engage in a greater integrative process during note-taking (Bretzing and Kulhary 1979). Computer note-takers tend to engage in what Herbert termed ‘mindless transcription’ leaving no chance for higher level processing of information.

In the end, I will continue the note-taking process in my course as well as my no-laptop policy. But I will be more conscious of providing ‘pause’ moments to allow students depth of processing and higher level integration of the material.

If you are interested to find out more here are a few citations discussing various studies in relation to note-taking.

Bretzing, Burke H. and Raymond W. Kulhary (1979), “Notetaking and depth of processing,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4 (2), pp. 124-153.

ERIC Digest “Note-Taking: What Do We Know about the Benefits? ERIC Digest #12,”

Herbert, Wray (2014), “Ink on Paper; Some Notes on Note-taking,”

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (in press), “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking,” Psychological Science.

About Carrie La Ferle

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