As personal laptops have become a classroom staple across college campuses, the debate over whether to continue to take notes by hand or to transfer to typing has divided both students and faculty. Those who prefer typing tend to opt for speed, while those who take notes by hand insist on the value of making the motions of the letters.
Spencer Thompson, senior mathematics and Christian studies double major, prefers to take notes by hand because it allows him to draw diagrams and write equations easily.
“Typing notes is great for getting a lot of information down quickly, but handwritten notes are reliable and provide a lot of flexibility,” Thompson said. “I think it comes down to personal preference because nobody benefits from taking notes in a way that is not intuitive for them.”
While handwriting notes is still common, 97% of college students own a laptop, according to a 2019 study by Educause Center for Analysis and Research. In addition, a 2011 study of University of Michigan students found that 53% of those surveyed thought they learned more due to laptops and 25% claimed laptops enhanced their attentiveness.
“Many faculty see this trend as an opportunity for more innovative teaching, and they are exploring ways to leverage this technology to increase student engagement during lecture,” the study said. “However, other faculty worry about potential distractions that mobile devices could introduce into their classrooms.”
So, who is correct — the writers, or the typists?
The answer lies mainly in the way in which technology encourages us to take notes. A 2014 study that aimed to solve this issue found that even in cases when people used laptops to only take notes without other distractions, students who took notes on laptops struggled more to answer conceptual questions than students who wrote notes by hand.
“They found that people who took notes by hand has a much better memory retention of the material, which if you compare the actual notes they took, their notes were not as fleshed out as the folks who typed,” said Dr. Erin Smith, associate professor of psychology. “So we could actually type more than we could write, but our memory was better on writing, so they argued that this is because there is a deeper cognitive engagement from handwriting.”
However, the difference in memory retention is less related to the motion of handwriting or the way the brain reacts to it. Rather, the issue stems from the fact that we can type faster than we write.
When handwriting, a student must hear the information, process it and filter the information to write down the important parts. When typing, there is less of a need to filter and condense information, which leads to less engagement with the material.
So, we are asking the wrong question. What we should be asking is this: Are we engaging with and listening to the material as we take notes?
“It’s not that there is anything magical about handwriting,” Smith said. “It is actually because you can’t write as fast as people speak, but you can type as fast as most people speak. Typing has become so automated. Your fingers are hitting the keys, and you are recording words. You aren’t actually even thinking about it. You are just serving as a transcriber of the lecture or of the discussion.”
If you prefer typing, though, do not worry — Smith said there are ways to use technology correctly to take notes. Smith said most of us use technology in the way we think we learn; however, most people do not understand how they learn. For example, most people would assume taking more pages of notes would indicate more learning. However, this is often not the case.
“To the extent that typing replaces thinking, that will be problematic,” Smith said. “To the extent that typing supports and extends thinking, it is a wonderful thing.”
Those who prefer typing can effectively learn from notetaking on a computer if they intentionally listen and engage with the material.
“It is an intentional stance that the learner takes,” Smith said. “If I sit down in a class and think that the way I learn is by writing down everything that has been said, then I am going to approach my notetaking in a way that is not actually beneficial for my learning.
“But if I say I am going write down the big points and the questions, and I am even going to jot down some things that it makes me think about that are happening in other classes and I am going to use it as a way to scaffold the concepts that we are trying to get into our mind, it is beneficial. We can absolutely use computers that way. The problem is most of us don’t.”
When typing notes, it is also important to avoid distractions to enhance learning, which can become difficult when students can access social media, the internet and other applications through their laptops.
Ultimately, Smith said it is important for students to find out what encourages them to become the most attentive during class. Do they become distracted easily? Do they transcribe notes on the computer, or do they actively engage with it as they type? If not, taking notes by hand would likely be beneficial.
“To the extent that you are using a tool that helps you funnel your attention where it ought to be directed,” Smith said. “That is a good tool to use.”