Comparing Note-Taking By Hand And By Keyboard

4 April 2016

Wall Street Journal:

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis in 2012 found that laptop note-takers tested immediately after a class could recall more of a lecture and performed slightly better than their pen-pushing classmates when tested on facts presented in class. They reported their experiments with 80 students in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Any advantage, though, is temporary. After just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’ve transcribed, several studies said. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so superficial.

I wouldn’t put too much faith in a study of just 80 students but it’s interesting enough to warrant a discussion nonetheless. The survey result mirrors my experience, at least. I memorised many pages of essays in a matter of hours, less than day of total work, for university exams. I did this by writing my notes out, over and over again. It’s boring and repetitive, but it definitely meant I could remember them. When it came to the actual exam, I could write out vast passages of things I had learnt by rote — word for word if I had to. A few of my friends had this exact same tactic and it seems to work for them as well.

This study covers learning directly in lectures. I did use my laptop for several classes to make lecture notes. Indeed, I found that straight after I did forget what we had covered. It wasn’t a matter of missing stuff; my proficient computer ability and WPM rate meant I covered everything. However, the advantages and convenience of typing far outweighed the advantages of immediate recall. I settled on a strategy where I would use my laptop to write notes for lectures but when it came to test revision, I would use pen and paper.

I think what happens is your brain spends so much energy as a scribe such that you enter a mode where words come in one ear and out the other. It is robotic output — not really thinking about what the words mean. When you write stuff, you are physically moving your hands more and have to look at what’s being written. Abbreviating or paraphrasing passages also plays a role, where you are having to actively think about the concepts at hand compared to simply copying sentences.

It would be interesting to see a study of taking notes with people who aren’t fast typists, but instead have to look at the keys and tap out each word. I would guess this more closely replicates the mental experiences of writing.

Personally, I found writing out complete paragraphs into notebooks far more efficient than making actual notes. Writing full sentences helped me remember it better than shortened phrases or bulleted lists. It was slower to do (plus quickly makes your hand ache) but it was effective.

Being able to remember stuff at university is a hugely important skill but it isn’t everything of course. I found that as long as I understood something once initially, later it was far easier to write it out and get back up to speed. The ability to quickly conjure up introductions and conclusions also helps a lot, even if you don’t really believe what you are writing. I did well by basing my arguments more around what subset of information I could recall on the day, rather than walking in with a fixed opinion and flailing around in my head for evidence.

In many examinations, what I had remembered was very reusable as professors often set similar questions year-to-year. This helps with time constraints too, as it’s far quicker to scribble something word-for-word than construct arguments and explanations on the fly. In other instances, I had to engage the mind more to actually make an essay that fits the question set but writing still let me recall the facts.