Recent scholarship identifies when laptops are learning tools, and when they’re distractions.
Typing’s faster than writing by hand, but students who took notes by hand wrote less—and thought more — about what to write down. The result? Hand writers are processing what they hear and making decisions about what’s worth remembering (Kay & Lauricella, 2011).
In other words, taking notes by hand helps students reflect on content. Students who take notes by hand think about the main idea and how subordinate ideas fit in. By organizing their notes, they organize their thoughts.
There’s a connection between having more notes and doing better on tests, but only to a point.
Students who type their notes write more, but they’re more likely to transcribe the lecture verbatim. When they treat lectures like a dictation exercise, they’re like stenographers. In this case, “mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 1161 & 1162).
Students who take longhand notes do better on conceptual tests of their knowledge when they have the opportunity to review their notes (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 1166). You can facilitate student reviews of notes by handing out review sheets before exams.
Laptops don’t need to be banned from class to promote engagement with lecture content.
In-class, laptop based assignments keep students focused on the lecture.
When instructors integrated class-time activities on the laptop in their lectures, students were more likely to stay on task (as compared to students simply taking notes on their laptops) (Kay & Lauricella, 2011).
Combining the best of handwritten notes and laptops may be a happy medium for note takers: a stylus makes it possible to take notes by hand (and so they’ll be more selective about what they write); those notes will be easy to access digitally (Psychological Science paraphrasing Mueller).
“Ultimately, the take-home message is that people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy” (Psychological Science quoting Mueller).
So what can you do?
In addition to including targeted tasks for students to complete in class, teach students how to take notes and pick out the main concepts. An outline that you refer to at the beginning of class and use to sum up the lecture at the end shows how ideas are related. This in turn makes it easier for students to organize notes.
Similarly, use phrases that show how ideas fit together. “The main idea of the lecture is…” or “The take-away message is…” signals a major concept, while “Take for instance…” or “To be more specific” signals an elaboration of the main idea or a subordinate thought.
“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” In: Association for Psychological Sciences. April 24, 2014.
Kay, R.H., & Lauricella, S. (2011). Unstructured vs. structured use of laptops in higher education. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10, 33-42.
Mueller, P., & Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Psychological Science,25(6), 1159-1168.
Image: "Overheard" by Stephen Coles / flickr Creative Commons, BY-NC-SA 2.0
…the take-home message is that people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy. Pam Mueller Princeton University