When should you take notes by hand

24. 2. 2020 | Student Life

Students take notes by handMost students take a laptop with them to lectures. Young people often type faster than they write which can be a useful skill as it allows you to take copious notes quickly and easily. But are there times when it might be better to replace your laptop with a pad and pen?

In an experiment, run by Pam Mueller at Princeton University published in 2014, students were asked to take notes while watching Ted talks. Half were given laptops to do so and half took notes by hand. There was little difference in their notes, but there was a slight difference when they were tested on the content of the lecture afterwards.

The results are not surprising. The students using a keyboard were more likely to type the lecturers’ words verbatim, while the students writing more slowly by hand had no choice but to engage with the information in order to allow them to summarize. To analyze the effectiveness of their notes, the students were tested on the content of the lecture afterwards.

When it came to remembering facts, it did not matter which method students used, but when asked to explain the concepts covered in the lecture, the students who took notes by hand did better. The reason behind this is that verbatim notetaking involves a shallower form of cognitive processing, therefore. When typing notes, you can even do it without thinking about the content at all if you wish to, but when using a pen and paper you process the information more deeply because you cannot possibly write it all down word by word. Another advantage of using a pen and paper is that you can move around the page very quickly, circling, underlining or adding extra information in the margins.

The researchers wondered if students could avoid verbatim notes when typing, so they did a similar study, but this time they warned the students against taking verbatim notes. Nevertheless, when the notes were analyzed, laptop users still tended to take verbatim notes and did worse in the conceptual quiz than those taking notes by hand. Even a week later when the students could revise from their notes before being tested, the pen-and-paper group still did better.


The reason is that cognitively processing material more deeply while you listen, helps you both to understand it and to remember it later. Even if you never refer back to your notes again, the process of creating them can be useful.

But using technology does not always lead to having worse notes. In a study from Helsinki published in 2019, medical students were given iPads to take notes. The results showed that students found them very helpful and that tablets gave them the flexibility to write non-linear notes and seemed to suit them particularly well as dental students, where visual images are important. Therefore, iPads were less tempting to take verbatim notes and instead better altered notetaking by hand. Also, with learning simple facts, taking notes on a laptop can work just fine as it requires less cognitive thinking.

All in all, whether it’s better to take notes during lectures by hand or not is down to personal preference. Typing notes is fast and notes on a laptop do have an advantage when it comes to fa easy storage and searching. But you might want to consider switching to hand-written notes in some cases if you want to remember the content better.

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