May 29

Note Taking – Handwritten Versus Computer Aided

I received an email from Katie this morning that got me thinking about the way that we teach our students to take notes. Here’s an excerpt from the email:

“I’ve always been a huge believer in (wait for it) handwritten note-taking.  Although I haven’t had scientific data to support my contention, I’ve just noticed over the years that my adult students, and now my adolescent kiddos, retain more when they hand-write their notes.  To me, it seems that the information flows through their hands and somehow closes a circle to cement the learning in the brain.  Take a listen to the last 1:30 of this podcast from NPR’s Morning Edition this past Wednesday:

Also, check out this piece in The Atlantic last year. 

Now, it may mean that we, as teachers, need to do a better job of helping students take thoughtful notes using laptops?  Or, do students gain a deeper understanding through handwriting their notes? Would love to hear your thoughts.”

The majority of the research that I have read agrees that hand-writing notes leads to better retention. After seeing adults and students take notes in a variety of formats for many years now, I would attribute a large portion of the difference between handwritten and electronic notes to the fact that when you have a screen in front of you, your brain is more likely to wander off-task because so many different distractions are available at the click of a button. And like The Atlantic piece mentions, note-taking on a computer frequently leads to verbatim notes, where the note-taker may or may not be truly processing the information that they are writing down.

However, I want to highlight one particular quote from The Atlantic piece.

A new study—conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer—finds that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones. 

The key word for me here is remember. If I am trying to remember something on a short term basis, I find that handwritten notes are more useful. They are quick, easy, and the physical nature of manipulating the pen or pencil does seem to trigger something to help the information stick.

But if I am trying to process information or make connections,  I find that electronic “notes” are better for me  – This is the reason that I blog and keep lists of ideas in Google Drive documents. I find that many of my thoughts and observations are tied to specific images, audio, video, or written articles that I’ve encountered. When I blog, I can not only write down my thoughts, but I can directly attach that thought process to the URL of the “item” that triggered the connection. Here’s an example.

Additionally, my best thoughts and ideas come when I have the ability to easily quickly brainstorm, delete, revise, and reorganize my thoughts. For me, digital is better in this case because of the nature of word processing. Although I could do all these things on a physical piece of paper, it is much more time consuming to do so and would interrupt my “flow.” On a computer, I complete these tasks without thinking, allowing my brain to stay focused on the ideas, and not the task of writing.

When I hear the term, “notes” used in a school setting, it is most frequently used in the context of remembering information. But the best notes allow the writer to not only remember information, but make connections with the material and develop new ideas. Ultimately, when thinking about the “best” way to take notes, I think it’s important that we teach students this difference, expose them to a variety of tools and strategies that help with these different skills, and then allow the students to choose what works best for them.

1 comment

    • Mark Edward Achtermann on June 26, 2015 at 1:12 am
    • Reply

    I agree that notes taken with a keyboard — for those proficient in typing — could be very useful for follow-up and processing. It may also be that soon all communications will be within a digital format and that handwriting will have gone the way of the cuneiform stylus, or even the fountain pen.

    Let me make two arguments for handwriting rather than keyboarding. The first is, in fact, off the point, which is retention. I do not intend a red herring. Many individuals have poor handwriting. Practice makes perfect. The second is, however, precisely to do with retention. When one is keyboarding, the hand experiences a limited range of motion (in my experience), whereas in handwriting one experiences a greater range of movement — albeit only in the dominant hand. Forming letters with distinct motions helps me to retain the information I am writing. This may be a personal experience, and I have no research to back me, save some forty-five years of practice, and many thousands of pages of notes.

    To return to the first point: If one types better than one writes longhand, probably typing would be less frustrating, and so notes would be more likely to happen. Because I write faster than I type (I think), I prefer longhand for note-taking, but for others the reverse might be true, and as a rule I would not argue for anything which slowed note-taking or made it frustrating. Also, with typing doodles would probably not intrude, but on contemporary machines they would likely be replaced by some other form of “off task” activity. I do find, in reviewing some of those thousands of pages of notes, that particularly while in grade school, college, and even my first round of grad school much space in my notebooks is occupied not by notes but by doodles. Frequently these have no relationship that I can now divine to the putative subject studied. And I would not have the temerity to argue for greater retention resulting from the ability to doodle. However, while doodling perhaps the mind is relatively more engaged with the presentation than one would be internet surfing while “listening” to a presentation.

    I know that educational tools worldwide are moving to embrace typing as a technique,* edging out handwriting. I have been very grateful as a student and as a teacher to have ready access to word-processing programs. I also consider occasions and situations when handwriting is the only option, and a person unaccustomed to writing longhand may find such situations awkward. I might also argue for a degree of compassion for those learners in communities unable to afford, or unwilling to subscribe to, electronic tools, or for continuity with past learners (say, Abraham Lincoln with his [apocryphal?] coal-shovel for slate). But such arguments are, again, off the point — not about retention, but about fellowship of humanity. In an era when the Haves (still) have a great deal more than the Have Nots, maybe the humility of a No.2 pencil with a rubbed-away eraser is an important leveller of the playing field.

    *I meant by this that contemporary educational tools often employ keyboards, and I apologize — but not too strenuously — for the double entendre on “tools” created by implicit personification in the phrase “are moving”.

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