October 21, 2014

Handwriting Notes in an Era of Technology

by Miranda Law, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Howard County General Hospital

Imagine a university student walking into classroom, promptly sitting in a seat, pulling out his or her laptop to prepare for class, and loading up the lecture slides.  The student also opens a web browser to load Google chat, Facebook, and e-mail.  If you were a student in the past few years, this is likely a familiar scene.

The method for taking notes during lectures has changed over the past decade. The use of laptops in classroom settings has been steadily on the rise and is now estimated to be 65% of students or more.1 Increasing laptop use has led to apprehension not only about whether students are really paying attention during lectures but also about the quality of learning that is produced from electronic note taking. One survey found that 81% of students admitted to checking their e-mail during class and high percentages reported using instant messaging (48%), surfing the net (43%), playing games (25%), and doing “other” activities (35%) on their mobile devices.1 The evidence strongly suggests that laptops, if not managed well, are a distraction for students in class.2 But distractions aside, let’s assume that in the well managed classroom where every student is on task, not distracted, and diligently taking notes, do students who take “laptop notes” do as well as those students who take “longhand notes”?

An evaluation of this question requires a brief discussion on how each of these methods relates to learning theory. According to cognitive learning theory, one would hypothesize that longhand note taking would require learners to encode information while laptop note taking would merely require the learner to appropriate place information into external storage.3 According to the encoding hypothesis, longhand note taking requires a student to transform information beyond verbatim text and reorganize the material into a context that is most meaningful to the learner.3 Through these processes, students who hand write notes may perform better on examinations, particularly if they are required to do so without prior study.3  Similar to rote memorization, external storage is the process of taking notes in their verbatim format, without deeper processing, and storing them for recall at a later time.3 Therefore, laptop note takers who do not review their notes prior to an examination would likely perform less well due to a lack of deeper processing of the information.3

These suppositions sound legitimate, but a hypothesis is merely a question waiting to be answered.  Does hand writing notes really result in improve performance in real life?  Research shows that laptops enable students to record greater amounts of information over shorter periods of time.4  Therefore, any advantage from hand writing notes brought about by “encoding” might be lost due to the greater quantity of information that can be recorded using laptops.

A recent study examines this very question.4 Does laptop note taking produce equivalent learning results when compared to longhand note taking? Students in the study watched four instructional videos in one sitting and were later tested on this material. Each group was handed either pencil and paper or provided a laptop to take notes. Both groups were instructed to take notes as they normally would in the classroom and informed that a test on the material would follow in one week.  Some students in each group were allowed 10 minutes to study their notes prior to the exam, and some took the test without having an opportunity to study their notes. The test consisted of both factual and conceptual questions. Results indicated that students who took long hand notes consistently performed better on factual and conceptual questions, regardless of whether time was given for studying (p=0.002).4  This study documents a very clear advantage for long hand note taking over laptop note taking.

So what does this all mean? Should the schools set regulations against laptop use? Do teachers need to ban laptops from the classroom? Is banning laptop use in an era when over 90% of the students1 owns one really feasible?

More and more research now indicates the potential harms of laptop use (and other mobile devices) on the learning process.  Not only do they create the opportunity for distractions but they may harm the very processes necessary for learning. But completely banning laptops and mobile devices is probably not feasible.  Some teachers have established “laptop zones” where users either sit in the front row to ensure their attention or, alternatively, sit in the back row to keep other students from becoming distracted.5 These solutions, however, do not resolve the inherent harms that laptop note taking may cause to the learning process.

The evidence shows that handwriting notes enhances the processing and learning of information.  My recommendation is for teachers to create learning environments where hand written notes are not only encouraged, but perhaps mandated.  The focus should be on improving the learning process, rather than prohibiting technology. Students can have their laptops when needed, but hand written notes should be the primary method of recording information during classroom instruction. Pushing students to process and organize the information enhances understanding and learning.  That’s something all teachers should strive to achieve for their students!

  1. Fried CB. In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education 2008;50:906-914.
  2. Kay RH, Lauricella S. Exploring the benefits and challenges of using laptopcomputers in higher education classrooms: A formative analysis. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. 2011;37:1-18.
  3. Rickards JP, Friedman F. The Encoding versus the External Storage Hypothesis in NoteTaking. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 1978;3:136-143.
  4. Mueller PA, Oppenheimer DM. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages ofLonghand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychol Sci. 2014;25:1159-1168.
  5. Yamamota, K. Banning Laptops in theClassroom: Is it Worth the Hassles?Journal of Legal Education. 2007;75:1-46.

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