The Advantage of Taking Notes by Hand
Research shows that taking notes by hand is more effective for remembering conceptual information over the long term than taking notes on a computer or laptop.
I recently read two pieces about research conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer demonstrating that students who write out their notes on paper learn more than students who type notes on laptops. The first was in Scientific American and the second was in KQED Public Radio News.
Because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write them out. At first, this may seem like an advantage. However, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by the presenter. This requires a different, less challenging type of cognitive processing than taking notes by hand. Because paper note takers can’t write everything down, they have to listen, digest, and paraphrase succinctly to capture information in notes. This “forces” their brains to be more active which in the end fosters stronger comprehension and long-term memory.
Mueller and Oppenheimer’s studies revealed that while both types of note-takers performed equally well answering questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on conceptual questions. The same results occurred even when the researchers told the students to avoid taking verbatim notes on the laptop, suggesting that the urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome. Basically, the shallow transcription that happens with typing notes fails to promote meaningful understanding or application of the information.
Access the studies published in the Psychological Science Journal.
Implications for the Classroom
The obvious take away from these research findings is to encourage students to hand-write notes rather than type them on laptops. However, I think the finding about the importance of critical thinking and processing while taking notes is the more important take away that has implications for classroom note taking.
For example: Many teachers write notes on the board or in PowerPoints and ask students to copy these notes. Teachers may do this to be sure students get the most important, complete information in their notes. They may also do this because they recognize that too many students do not know how to take their own notes. The problem with this approach is that the teacher, not the students, is doing the thinking and processing. Copying notes, even if it is by hand, is simply transcribing without thinking.
Here is another example: Struggling readers and writers often have educational plans that recommend provision of notes as an accommodation for weak reading, listening, and writing skills. Teachers meet this requirement by giving students a set of the teacher’s notes or copying a set of notes taken by another student. Again, the problem is that these students are deprived of the opportunity to think about and process the information that goes into the notes.
What is the instructional solution?
Several Keys to Literacy professional development programs incorporate the use of two-column notes. This format lists main ideas in the left column and key supporting details in the right column. The format is easy to teach students; it is much harder to teach students the comprehension skills required to identify main ideas and relevant supporting details and the ability to paraphrase wording for notes in the students’ own words.
Here are some instructional suggestions:
- In order to learn note taking skills, students need explicit instruction in the foundational main idea skills. Explicit instruction includes modeling note taking by the teacher using think aloud to make obvious how to apply thinking and processing skills. Students also need lots of guided practice where they learn to improve how they comprehend and write notes. Opportunities to work collaboratively with other students to generate notes is also helpful.
- Along the way, teachers can provide scaffolds to support students who struggle with note taking. They just need to keep in mind that the scaffolds should enable students to do as much of the thinking as possible. For example, instead of giving students a set of completed notes to copy, the teacher can give students partially completed notes – that is, some of the main ideas and details are provided, but others are not. Teachers can also provide lists of words and phrases that students can access to include in notes, but that still require them to determine where to include them in their notes.
- Students need lots of practice in order to develop fluent note taking skills. Teachers should require students to take notes whenever they read or listen to presentations related to classroom content. Requiring notes pushes students to be active readers and listeners, which will support deeper learning and long-term memory of content.
Here are some additional resources related to note taking instruction:
- Keys to Literacy Archived Newsletter, Volume 5
- Keys to Literacy YouTube training video
- How to Take Great Notes (Great!Kids)
- Take Note: Five Lessons for Note-Taking Fun (Education World)
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- Digital Note Taking - Keys to Literacy - […] The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard, by Mueller and Oppenheimer, in my October 2015 post titled The Advantages…
Writing notes by hand remains an important skill now. We haven’t yet gone completely digital in our learning and daily lives to give up handwritten notes, it’s true. The skill of note-taking not only helps us to learn more effectively but also to develop our thinking. And it’s really our responsibility to teach kids exactly how to take notes, not dictation or word-for-word rewriting of a PowerPoint slide.
https://primeyourpump.com/2018/11/06/note-taking-methods/ – this article describes the most common methods of taking notes. These methods can be scaffolds that help to develop the skill. And I would also like to mention that writing by hand has many advantages itself (https://themanufacturingconnection.com/2020/11/20-ways-handwriting-helps/), and it certainly needs to support students in using pen and paper in the classroom.