Why you should never take notes on a laptop

I may teach in the 21st century, but I like my classroom technology-free: no smartphones, and not even any laptops or iPads for students to take notes on. Naturally, some 21st century students object to these luddite tendencies. And if I could just get them to listen to the great new research on laptops, perhaps I could persuade them that leaving the laptops in the dorm will be better in the long run.

In my mind, the conversation would go like this:

“Why can’t I use my laptop in class? It’ll help me take notes.”

Using a laptop will actually interfere with how well you understand what I’m trying to teach you, and how well you do in the class. This was true even in 2006 (in the dark ages before the iPhone), when over a hundred students enrolled in an Introductory Psychology course and given the option of bringing laptops to their (WiFi enabled) classroom completed online surveys each week about their attendance, learning, and use of laptops.

Lower grades in the class were earned by students who had lower ACT scores (an SAT cousin), who came to class less often, and – most importantly here – who used laptops more often during class. The students themselves, at the end of the semester, said that laptops were the single greatest hindrance to their learning, more than being distracted by other students talking or fidgeting, than how long or what time of day the class was, or even how the professor taught.

Students who used their laptops more often said that they paid less attention, found the lessons less clear, and didn’t understand the class as well as students who tended not to bring laptops. No doubt part of the problem was that students who used their laptops reported spending about 25% of class time doing something other than taking notes, usually checking email and using instant messaging – the equivalents of today’s texting, Facebooking or Snapchatting. Laptops are just trouble.

“Alright, laptops can be distracting. But I’m no kindergartener resisting a marshmallow; I  have excellent self-control! I give my word to only take notes. Don’t you trust me?”

It honestly doesn’t matter whether I trust you. That study suggested distraction is the main culprit, but maybe that’s just because they didn’t consider any alternatives besides distraction. Even the 75% of the time that students on laptops were taking notes might have hurt them, because laptop notes just aren’t as good as ones taken by hand.

“Not a chance! My typed notes are far better; that’s why I want the laptop! I can type faster than I write, so my notes will match what you say much more closely and be much more detailed. And when I go back later, they’re easier to read than my own handwriting. Those are definitely superior notes!”

The laptop notes may be better transcriptions of what I said, but that isn’t the same as being better for your learning.

This evidence comes from a brand-new study where students watched 15-minute TED talks and were given either a laptop or a pen and paper to take notes. They knew it was for a study, and that they would be tested soon, so they were really on task and taking notes the entire time. After 30 minutes of completing other, distracting tasks, they took a quiz on the lecture.

Students who took notes on a laptop did ok on quiz questions that asked about facts, like the names of countries that have more economic inequality. But they did much worse on questions that got at bigger concepts like how countries take different approaches to dealing with economy – and in my classes, I assure you, the concepts are the most important things to grasp.

The problem seems to be that while the students could type more words on the laptop than they could write by hand, they wrote the wrong kind of words. They were typing so fast they were able to get down more of the lecture verbatim, or word-for-word. But getting more words verbatim is actually worse for doing well on a test, because the key to learning is processing: the more deeply you process information, the better you learn it. Typing verbatim doesn’t require much processing, but writing by hand does. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you have to pick and choose what words you’ll spend that time writing. This means that you are processing the meaning of the words, not just repeating the exact words that were said before. And that means you’ll have a better understanding of those concepts, because you took those few extra moments to think about them as you were writing.

“Alright, but now I know that I shouldn’t type what you say word-for-word, and I’ll be sure not to do that. I’ll change the words, just like people do when they take handwritten notes.”

Sorry, knowing isn’t even half the battle. The instinct to type exactly what you heard is just too strong, and too automatic. They actually added this to the study: students were told just what I’ve told you, that laptops tend to make people write things word-for-word, and that they should try not to do this, and try to write everything in their own words. They wrote just as much verbatim as the students who hadn’t been told anything – 12%, far more than the 7% word-for-word in the handwriting. And this played out in how well students could answer questions about what they had been trying to learn; look at the chart below, and you’ll see how both laptop groups are getting the same scores, while the students who took handwritten notes are leaving them behind.

Students taking notes on a laptop scored worse on quizzes, even when they were told the better kind of notes to take. Adapted from Muller & Oppenheimer's (2014) Figure 4.

Students taking notes on a laptop scored worse on quizzes, even when they were told the better kind of notes to take. Adapted from Muller & Oppenheimer’s (2014) Figure 4.

The problem with going against the grain, and trying to overcome the echo in your head that is exactly what a professor just said, is that it distracts you too! You’re using brainpower reminding yourself not to type things word for word, when you could just be writing by hand and devoting all your brainpower to thinking about the meaning behind the words.

“But didn’t you say they were being tested half an hour later? They didn’t have a chance to study! The verbatim notes might not be great right away, but they’ll help me understand when I study them later”.

Sorry, but the researchers thought of that too. They did a third study where students came back a week later to take their quiz, and some had ten minutes to review the notes beforehand – just like students studying in the few minutes before class starts. If the notes were handwritten, studying helped! But, if the notes were taken on a laptop – then students might as well have just not studied, because they did just as badly as any of the students who weren’t given a chance to study. Look at this chart; which score would you rather have on a quiz?

When notes were taken with a laptop, even a chance to study didn't help students learn. Based on data from Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014).

When notes were taken with a laptop, even a chance to study didn’t help students learn. Based on data from Mueller & Oppenheimer (2014).

I can think of at least two reasons that studying the typewritten notes might not help. First, the point of re-reading your notes is to help reactivate ideas in your brain, but if you were typing more verbatim notes during that class, and not processing the ideas deeply, then there are fewer ideas to reactivate in the first place.

Even with the exact same set of notes, though, I bet reading the handwritten ones will be better than reading the typed ones. This is because of something called perceptual fluency, or how easy it is to read something. The easier it is to read, the easier we think it is to understand – even when we don’t actually understand. And in the other direction, the harder it is to read, the harder we think it is to understand – and so we slow down, and spend more time, which helps you think about what your notes are really about all over again. A difficult-to-read font (or your own handwriting, over reading neat Times New Roman font) is so powerful that it actually makes you more likely to accept evidence that contradicts your previous ideas. That is really going to help you think about what you actually learned in class more deeply. 

With any luck, that would do it. But there’s always a few, so it may just end…

“I still want to take notes on my laptop. Isn’t there anything I can say to change your mind?”

I’m a scientist; my theories and beliefs are open to change when contradictory evidence is presented. So you have two options to change my mind, and earn my permission to use a laptop in class. You can go read those studies (the references are below) and present a compelling counter-argument for why they are flawed or don’t apply to you. Or, you can go find your own, newer, peer-reviewed studies and tell me how they show that using a laptop will be more of a help than a hindrance for you.

Fried, C. B. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning Computers & Education, 50 (3), 906-914 DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2006.09.006
Mueller, P., & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking Psychological Science, 25 (6), 1159-1168 DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581


5 thoughts on “Why you should never take notes on a laptop

  1. Do you know whether there has been any work done on the use of laptops by students with specific learning difficulties (i.e. dyslexia)?

    • Dyslexia is an interesting case I hadn’t considered. However, I suspect that the same central arguments apply. On the one hand, students with dyslexia and learning disabilities that make note-taking difficult might struggle more with handwritten notes than their neurotypical peers, and have to divert more attention to figuring out what they’re writing as they take hand-written notes at a cost of paying better attention to the instructor. On the other hand, the best solution for dyslexia in particular is to recognize tricky words or letter combinations and find a way around them by changing the word or the rest of the sentence. This is exactly what the research suggests we want, paraphrasing (and thus deeper processing) instead of writing verbatim. A laptop might help them with the words they can’t avoid (such as brain terms like hippocampus and hypothalamus), but would that slight benefit in specific terminology outweigh the risk of falling into that more verbatim style of note-taking overall?

      The best resource on note-taking in general in the LD population seems to Boyle & Rivera (2012), a meta-analysis article on note-taking interventions (published in Learning Disability Quarterly). Across a variety of studies, all seeming to use handwritten notes, LD students were helped by being given guided notes (an outline of key points with some words missing and/or room for more detail to be written in), or “strategic note papers” that prompted them to use sections of the page to identify key points, write new vocabulary, and summarize. I would bet that a change in note-taking strategy would be a far more effective tool for all students than just getting more notes thanks to a laptop.

      • Thanks for the references, Katharine. The reason I was wondering is that, in the UK, there has long been a scheme of funding for laptops for Dyslexic students to use at university level. I wonder whether that could actually be counter-productive on the basis of these findings.

    • There is certainly good evidence that note-taking is more cognitively demanding in a foreign language. In theory, admissions criteria of passing the TOEFL to demonstrate English proficiency should mean it’s not too demanding; in reality, I suspect there is still a decent amount of translation (and remembering the crazy English spelling system) that can distract the student.

      I can see in this case the idea that the student might be better off with something like verbatim notes, but only if they’re using them to double-check definitions and ultimately rewrite them as their own summaries. I know many non-native English speakers who would do so…but also some who, like many college students, would find themselves pressed for time and therefore stuck with the worst notes of word-for-word what was said. And if we’re discussing a point in the lesson where the student loses track of the meaning of what’s being said, what would the student actually type of the foreign (and therefore unknown how to spell) words?

      This is one of my least favorite areas to do a literature search in, because it is so difficult to sort through the studies that look at the teaching of a foreign language itself, to find the relatively few studies that consider people who are receiving content instruction using a non-native language. Again, none seem to consider the laptop issue (many seem to be from the 1990s), but several do find some effectiveness for strategies like the “Cornell method”.

      Now I’ll have to design a study that pits a laptop against instructions about better note-taking strategies, to test my current guess that an intervention about better ways to take notes would help these students far more than just doing what they usually do, only faster on a laptop.

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