How to learn better and remember more.

Note Taking
Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

Note taking has always played a key role in learning and development. With the boom in technology it is becoming increasing common for people to use laptops or smart pads to take notes in meetings and training sessions. Whilst this might seem an effective use of a device many scientists have speculated that it is less effective for learning and memory than traditional pen and paper longhand note taking.

To test these theories researchers at Princeton University  carried out three tests where they pitched both forms of note taking against each other (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). They divided college students into two groups, one that used laptops for note taking and one group that made longhand notes using pens and paper. Both groups made notes whilst watching  TED talks and then 30 minutes later were asked a series of questions about what they’d learnt.

There were two types of questions in the test. There were factual recall questions and there were conceptual-application questions.

The results showed that there was very little difference between the two groups when it came to the factual recall questions but those who used laptops performed worse on the conceptual-application questions. So it seems that whilst both groups were able to recall the key facts from the talks, the written note takers had gained a deeper conceptual understanding of the topic.

The reason for this difference comes down to the mental processes that underpin the way we make hand-written notes compared to the way we make notes using a laptop. When we make hand-written notes we engage more with the information. We listen to what is being said, we make sense of the information and we write the information down in the way that we understand it. In contrast, it seems that when we make notes on a laptop the tendency is for us to type what the speaker says verbatim as we hear it, creating something more like a transcription. As one of the researchers describes:

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.

The key point here is not what method of note taking you should or shouldn’t use, it is about engaging with the information, distilling what the speaker is trying to say and understanding it before noting it down (on your note paper or your laptop).  The mental processing that occurs by doing this enables the information to be that more firmly embedded, learning is then enhanced and memory is boosted.


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Image credit: Chung Ho Leung

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