The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking
Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
Laptop note taking has been rapidly increasing in prevalence across college campuses (e.g., Fried, 2008). Whereas previous studies have shown that laptops (especially with access to the Internet) can distract students, the present studies are the first to show detriments due to differences in note-taking behavior. On multiple college campuses, using both immediate and delayed testing across several content areas, we found that participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes than participants who wrote longhand, thus hurting learning. Moreover, we found that this pattern of results was resistant to a simple verbal intervention: Telling students not to take notes verbatim did not prevent this deleterious behavior.
One might think that the detriments to encoding would be partially offset by the fact that verbatim transcription would leave a more complete record for external storage, which would allow for better studying from those notes. However, we found the opposite—even when allowed to review notes after a week’s delay, participants who had taken notes with laptops performed worse on tests of both factual content and conceptual understanding, relative to participants who had taken notes longhand. We found no difference in performance on factual questions in the first two studies, though we do not dis-count the possibility that with greater power, differences might be seen. In Study 3, it is unclear why longhand note takers outperformed laptop note takers on factual questions, as this difference was not related to the relative lack of verbatim overlap in longhand notes. It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently. It is worth noting that longhand note takers’ advantage on retention of factual content is limited to conditions in which there was a delay between presentation and test, which may explain the discrepancy between our studies and previous research (Bui et al., 2013). The tasks they describe would also fall under our factual-question category, and we found no difference in performance on factual questions in immediate testing. For conceptual items, however, our findings strongly suggest the opposite conclusion. Additionally, whereas Bui et al. (2013) argue that verbatim notes are superior, they did not report the extent of verbatim overlap, merely the number of “idea units.” Our findings concur with theirs in that more notes (and there-fore more ideas) led to better performance.
The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even—or perhaps especially—when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking. Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a lap-top than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.