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Pens and Pencils Provide More Than the Computer

There goes a saying "The pen is mightier than the computer." Here's an explanation on why taking notes by hand is better for learning than taking notes on a computer.

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Technology has played an incredible role in the generation of industrial innovations and technological advancements. Take the internet for example: a central hub for easily-accessible information about anything, instant communication across the entire globe, and a provider of many kinds of services. As fantastic as it sounds, the drawbacks are just as detrimental. One of those drawbacks is typing notes by computer. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Taking notes by hand is better than by typing.” But what are the reasons which make that saying legitimate?

At the time, psychological researchers at Princeton University, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer collaborated on a research project on whether students learn more by handwriting notes or typing notes on a laptop. Mueller and Oppenheimer coordinated three experiments to determine their question.

In their first study, Mueller and Oppenheimer presented 65 university students a few TED talks on multiple subjects (2). These students were split among two groups: one group that took notes and the other taking notes with a disconnected laptop. After taking notes on the TED talks, all 65 students, for 30 minutes, answered questions completely irrelevant to the TED talks but required the brain to think. Afterwards, the students were asked factual questions and conceptual questions about the TED talks they watched (3). While both groups answered equally well on the factual questions, the group that typed their notes performed “significantly worse” on the conceptual questions (2).

“Kenny, don’t students take more notes by typing, as writing is a slower process? Shouldn’t that correlate to more absorption of the content?”

That is only 50% correct. Yes, Mueller and Oppenheimer observed that students who typed their notes took more notes by verbatim, but that sole reason is exactly why those students were outperformed by their other colleagues who hand wrote their notes. We all admit – taking notes is extremely tiresome and tedious, so there is no way we could write down everything the professor says. Instead, we write down the important concepts and listen, absorb, and recap the highlights of the content; this process is called mental lifting (1). On the other hand, typing does not require much thought since the brain’s ultimate goal is just to jot down as much information as he/she possibly can, discouraging mental lifting.

For the second experiment, Mueller and Oppenheimer told the students to attempt paraphrasing instead of taking their notes by verbatim. Still, the students could not paraphrase as efficiently as those who took notes by hand (3). Our brains tend to complete tasks through an easy process, so perhaps that may be why students struggled with paraphrasing the notes despite specifically told to avoid verbatim notes. As a result, our brain fails to process the information just as well as those who hand write their notes.

In the final experiment, Mueller and Oppenheimer allowed their students to study their notes in between the time they took notes and when they would take a test on the material. The idea was to imitate an actual classroom setting where professors would assess exams a few days after the lecture (3). That way, students can review the content later during their study time as normal students would.

Not surprisingly, students who hand wrote their notes still performed better. Similar to mental lifting, our brain has another complex cognitive capability called encoding. Encoding is the brain’s first step to processing information into either short-term or long-term memory. With effective learning and certain cues, encoding can transform information into long-term memory. Recreating information in our brain is one of the most powerful skills we possess, encouraging effective learning and eventually, encoding that information into long-term memory. This phenomenon explains why students who typed their notes were, once again, outperformed by their peers who hand wrote their notes (1).

Another factor to consider when taking notes is the internet itself. In typical classroom settings, students have access to the internet which can act as a distractor. Statistics show that students who take notes on a computer will spend 40% of their time engaging in online programs unrelated to the lecture (1). This poses a critical threat in a learning environment as it can hinder not only student performance, but also the student’s appreciation for learning as a whole.

It’s very clear that taking notes on a computer can be detrimental when it comes to learning. Students should put away their laptops and start writing their notes by hand again. Think of note-taking as the process of creating a collage: the notebook (or computer) is the main frame of the collage, the cut-outs of pictures are the abstract ideas and concepts of the lectures, the process of typing notes on a computer is a dried-out glue stick, and the process of taking notes by hand is superglue. If you use a dried-out glue stick for your collage, you’ll end up with practically nothing. But if you use superglue, you’ll be able to stick your pictures onto the paper to create a comprehensive collage.

So put your computer away. Start taking notes by hand! You’ll not only be a better student but a happier one too!





Kenny Jung is a first year at UC Merced where he majors in computer science and engineering. He has many recognitions such as QuestBridge College Prep Scholar 2017 and National College Match Finalist 2017, SCS Noonan Scholar, Fiat Lux Scholar, APIASF Scholar, and Caruso Scholar. In addition to writing for The Student Scientist, he takes part in a non-profit organization called Project Magnify which he helped become established in 2017.

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