Laptop Note-Taking: External Brain-Booster or Memory Drain?

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 27, 2014 2 min read
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As more and more districts roll out 1-to-1 laptop and tablet initiatives, new research suggests students may be better off sticking to traditional pen and paper longhand for taking and studying notes.

In a series of experiments published in the June edition of Psychological Science, Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California Los Angeles found that students taking notes on a laptop could include more material—but that wasn’t neccessarily a good thing.

In three different experiments, college students watched 15-minute TED talks and took notes either by writing in a journal or typing them out on a laptop (which was disconnected from the Internet and other programs to prevent distractions). The students were then tested on facts and concepts from the talks, after 30 minutes or, in one study, after a week and the opportunity for some to study their notes.

Regardless of whether students were tested right away or a week later, the results were the same: Students who took more notes outperformed those who took fewer notes, and students who used laptops took significantly more notes. So laptop users must have outperformed pen-and-paper users, right?

Not at all—and here’s where it gets tricky. It’s true that those who took more notes outperformed those who took fewer in all three studies. But those who took down more of the lecture verbatim remembered much less than students who summarized and rewrote the concepts in their own words. Laptop note-takers typed nearly twice as many words as hand-note-takers did in some of the experiments, but far more of them were verbatim sections of the lectures. Moreover, these did not seem to operate as a kind of external mental hard drive, as a recent article of Scientific American called the Internet; students who studied the typed notes learned less than their peers studying handwritten notes.

As this chart from the study shows:

There’s plenty of research on the benefits of summary paraphrasing in learning, but what’s interesting is that handwriting seems to force students to take summary notes. Most people just don’t write fast enough to copy lectures word-for-word. But even when, in the second experiment, students on laptops were specifically told not to take notes verbatim, they did so anyway. Typing seems to make it easier to zone out a bit during a lecture, letting your ears connect to your fingers without really making their way into your conscious thought.

School leaders are already grappling with ways to prevent laptops and tablets from becoming a distraction for students during class, as they search for information about a weekend concert instead of the history of Prohibition. But this study suggests that guidelines and filters will not be enough; educators will need to think about how new technology affects the most basic of classroom practices.

Chart source: Psychological Science

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.