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Why Pen and Paper Beats a Laptop Every Time for Taking Notes

Matthew MacLachlan

19 Jul 2016

A laptop or good old-fashioned pen and paper for taking notes? Just as snail mail has given way to email, when it comes to taking notes, most business people today prefer to type than write by hand. The reasons are many and varied. Typing is more legible, comes more easily and naturally, and is quicker for most than writing longhand.

But have we lost something? Is taking notes on a laptop or tablet dumbing us down?

What does taking notes look like in 2016?

Today’s generation would rather use a tablet or a laptop for taking notes, be it in the classroom or in an office

For all the reasons mentioned above, today’s generation, brought up on computers and the internet, would rather use a tablet or a laptop for taking notes, be it in the classroom or an office.

Research shows hand-written notes trump electronic ones

However, research has shown that the benefits of hand-written notes far outweigh those using an electronic medium. Educators discourage, sometimes ban, students from bringing laptops into the classroom for fear that their use will interfere with concentration and learning.

Research has shown that the benefits of hand-written notes far outweigh those using an electronic medium

On the face of it, the obvious concerns of using laptops are the distractions they pose that interfere with active listening. Social media are only a click away, be they Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin. However, avoiding these distractions by turning off the internet does not solve this problem.

On the face of it, the obvious concerns of using laptops are the distractions they pose that interfere with active listening

Writing helps to internalise learning

Studies have shown that students who use laptops for taking notes tend to transcribe the information without processing and analysing the ideas in their own minds.

They ‘hear’ the lecture but don’t ‘think’ about it. This seems to be the one crucial difference in the two methods of note taking: writing and typing.

Writing by hand being slower, the listeners need to be more selective, and sift the information as they listen

Those who use a keyboard can transcribe so rapidly that they are more prone to repeating everything verbatim. On the other hand, writing by hand being slower, the listeners need to be more selective, and sift the information as they listen, writing down only that which is necessary, important or relevant using their own personal code of marks and symbols.

These notes later have to be decoded, reviewed and revised. Apart from aiding better comprehension, this method of mentally processing information is said to have the added benefit of assisting in long-term memory retention.

The Pen is mightier than the keyboard!

The findings were based on three separate studies conducted on 327 participants listening to the same lecture, with some taking notes on a computer and others using pen and paper

This was also the conclusion of a study, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” by psychologists Pam A. Muller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA, published in the journal Psychological Science.

The findings were based on three separate studies conducted on 327 participants listening to the same lecture, with some taking notes on a computer and others using pen and paper.

When it came to both learning the concepts, as well as retrieving the information over time, those writing longhand did better. “We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of the lecture content verbatim. The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down,” Mueller tells The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer.

Verbatim note-taking needs fewer strategies than taking down notes by hand. Moreover, brain scans have validated this study by showing that the actual function of writing down information by hand activates the brain and triggers the learning centre.

“We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of the lecture content verbatim. The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down”

Is an electronic stylus the answer?

In spite of such studies clearly demonstrating the superiority of hand-writing notes over typing them on a keyboard, it is unrealistic to expect note-takers to go back to using a book and pen.

Developing more user-friendly smartpens that imitate actual pens more closely than the ‘scratchy’ unfriendly ones we have today could be the answer

The researchers also admit it is difficult, if not impossible, to get those used to new technology to go back to the old. Therefore, short of banning laptops or forcing the choice of the medium on note takers, how can we maximise learning and retention?  Perhaps there is a middle way, and that is the tablet, and forming the letters physically using a stylus.

Developing more user-friendly smartpens that imitate actual pens more closely than the ‘scratchy’ unfriendly ones we have today could be the answer.

We can then ‘write’ on our laptops by mimicking the physical movement of handwritten notes. As Mueller says, “We are never going to get people to go back to notebooks, but maybe a stylus and tablet will be able to take that place”.

We are never going to get people to go back to notebooks, but maybe a stylus and tablet will be able to take that place