Digital Notes vs Paper Notes: Benefits of Taking Notes by Hand

in Research   Posted on April 1, 2021  Author: Imed Bouchrika,

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, the modern learning environment has already largely incorporated connected devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops (EdTech, 2018). In 2020, a worldwide shift away from the classroom happened, rendering the use of electronic devices more important for facilitating online education. As research suggests that online learning promises increased information retention, the changes that the pandemic caused could be here to stay (Li & Lalani, 2020).

Whether online or in-classroom, note-taking is a critical component of learning. It is also one of the best practices for exam preparation. The incorporation and utilization of electronic devices have been altering classroom dynamics in several ways, including how students take notes. Research is mixed on which is the best method of note-taking. However, findings suggest that although devices such as laptops may improve student’s note-taking ability, it may also hinder learning efficacy (Stacy & Cain, 2015). This is why experts and educators leave us with a learning secret: don’t take notes on a laptop.

This article takes a closer look at the pros and cons of both longhand and electronic note-taking to hopefully help students realize the benefits they can potentially reap should they decide to choose writing over typing.

Digital Notes Vs. Paper Notes What Makes Longhand Note-Taking a Valuable Learning Secret

Note-Taking in the Modern Classroom Table of Contents

  1. Digital Notes Vs. Paper Notes
  2. Why Longhand Note-Taking is Better
  3. Note-Taking Best Practices for Students

According to the latest data collated by the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2017, 90.8% of U.S. households have members who own a computing device, including desktops, laptops, and smartphones (NCES, 2017). Meanwhile, a study of community college students conducted by ECAR in 2019 revealed that 91% of the respondents have access to a laptop, and 97% of them personally own the device (Gierdowski, 2019).

In a 2011 study of University of Michigan students, 53% of the respondents stated that their laptops helped them learn more, with 25% strongly agreeing that their attentiveness increased. Open-ended comments also revealed that students believe that “laptops do help with taking notes a lot.” However, there are also students who think that while typing on a laptop allows for quicker note-taking, it can also be a source of distraction when someone uses their device for unrelated activities (Zhu et.al., 2011).

Perception of Students on Laptop Use in the Classroom

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As many students feel that typing is more efficient than writing, digital note-taking has become commonplace. On the surface, this does not seem like a big deal—taking notes is taking notes, after all. However, a number of research and studies show otherwise.

Digital Notes Vs. Paper Notes

As more institutions expand their online learning programs and more educators incorporate interactive learning trends into their lectures, it only makes sense that students also turn to computers and other digital devices and apps for enhancing their learning experience. It is not surprising that out of 88% of students who own a laptop, 63% use it during their classes (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017).

However, while a computer or laptop can help improve learning by allowing students to efficiently research, communicate, and collaborate (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017), these devices may not be as helpful when used in note-taking.

Source: McGraw-Hill Education

Several studies have shown that laptop note-takers perform worse on conceptual exam questions compared to longhand note-takers (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). The studies also reveal that even though students can type more on their laptops, they tend to simply transcribe the lecture verbatim. This robs them of the opportunity to process and grasp information in such a way that they can reframe it in their own words, unlike when writing notes on paper.

The results of the studies can be likened to learning impairment. Essentially, the students hear and capture the lecture’s content. However, they might not be able to absorb and digest it effectively. Because of this, they are left with notes that may include facts, but without conclusions drawn from the lecture. As a result, they find it a challenge to answer conceptual and open-ended questions.

Why Longhand Note-Taking is Better

Note-taking methods have already evolved together with technology over the years. Handwritten notes were supplemented, if not replaced, by word processing tools, personal digital assistants, digital notebooks, note-taking applications, audio recorders, voice-to-text programs, and other technologies. However, not all of these pen-and-paper alternatives are seen as very beneficial, particularly laptops.

So, what does old school note-taking get right that its digital counterpart lacks?

It is quite simple: quality over quantity. In Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study (2014), longhand note-takers wrote significantly fewer words than those who typed on their laptop. It was also found that 14.6% of the laptop notes were verbatim, whereas the longhand notes only had 8.8% verbatim overlap.

don't take notes with a laptop

An average adult can write around 13 words per minute (Bledsoe, 2011). Meanwhile, the average typing speed is around 40 words per minute (Typing.com, 2017). Thus, it is not a surprise that laptop note-takers record more words from the lecture than longhand note-takers.

This goes to show that longhand writing potentially slows down the note-taker, giving them extra time to absorb information more effectively. As a result, they can draw conclusions on their own and add side notes of their own. They can even make diagrams out of their own conclusion, signifying a deeper understanding of the lecture. On the contrary, typing on a laptop can make the note-taker too focused on typing, making sure they transcribe every word right. This results in a shallower, superficial understanding. In other words, typing can be likened to simply recording but not completely understanding lectures.

Note-Taking Best Practices for Students

Research on note-taking has shown that taking notes during class lectures and reviewing them have a positive impact on learning (DeZure, Kaplan, & Deerman, 2001). At this point, it has already been established that longhand note-taking trumps laptop note-taking. This, however, does not mean that all technology generates negative results.

While classic pen and paper note-taking can be considered ideal, we cannot deny the influence of technology in the modern learning environment. For students to leverage the benefits of taking notes by hand and technology, methodologies and practices that combine them need to take the stage.

Touchscreen Devices and Stylus Pens

If typing on a laptop is detrimental to learning, how about using a handheld touchscreen device that allows users to mimic writing? Tablets and smartphones that support stylus pens and digital notebook or note-taking applications allow students to take notes using longhand writing while also enjoying the benefit of storing their notes digitally. As 93% of students own a smartphone while 56% own a tablet (McGraw-Hill Education, 2017), incorporating this note-taking method in class should be easy.

Some of the mobile applications that can be used for digital longhand note-taking are the following:

  • Notability – Available for iOS and macOS, it allows handwriting, sketching, and adding notes on digital files.
  • Penultimate from Evernote – Available for iOS (iPad), it is a digital handwriting app with additional search features.
  • Goodnotes – Available for iOS and macOS, it turns Apple devices into digital paper.
  • OneNote – Available for touchscreen Windows devices, this program’s Draw feature can convert handwriting to text.

Mobile Handheld Device Ownership Among U.S. University Students

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Traditional Note-Taking Techniques

There are also several note-taking methods that students can do without having to ditch their laptops or other electronic devices. The following can be done using pen and paper, laptop, smartphone, or tablet:

  • Outline Method – Instead of typing or transcribing a lecture verbatim, students can organize their notes in an outline format, where ideas are divided into main topics, sub-topics, and supporting information. This is best used for lectures with a clear structure.
  • Cornell Method – In this method, students need to start with a template that will allow them to specify keywords (main ideas) and questions (their thoughts about the lecture). This method also encourages the note-taker to review their notes after a lecture to create a summary. This method is recommended for all types of lectures and meetings.
  • Charting Method – Students can use a spreadsheet or insert a table in a word processing document for this method. Here, they can use columns to separate main ideas and the cells beneath them for adding supporting facts and information. This is best used for lectures that involve a lot of information, especially data and figures.
  • Mapping Method – This method encourages note-takers to create a diagram that relates facts and ideas to a central idea or topic. Unlike in an outline, ideas in a mind map is presented in a non-linear manner. Mind mapping is best used for content-heavy lectures that have many subtopics.
  • Sentence Method – This is a simple note-taking method where every new idea is written in a bulleted or numbered sentence. This method is most effective if the student composes their own sentences. Use the sentence method of note-taking in long lectures with lots of facts and ideas that can be tied together in sentences.

The Bottom Line: How Students Digest Their Notes is More Important

Taking notes, whether digitally or manually through writing, has long been proven to be a valuable part of the learning experience. However, in the end, how students digest the notes they take is what is more important. To support this, a study of 21 subjects with comparable academic abilities showed that both computer and handwritten note-takers performed equally well on tests given to them (Beck, 2014). This is also somewhat supported by the study conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014), which showed that participants performed equally well on factual-recall questions.

Indeed, several other studies suggest that longhand note-taking is more superior in terms of helping learners process and retain information, and answer conceptual questions. However, the fact that digital electronic devices are here to stay and are now an inevitable part of the modern learning environment needs to be seriously considered when recommending note-taking methods. Furthermore, as digital devices and programs continuously improve, stakeholders should maximize the opportunity to come up with more interactive methods and applications that can effectively combine the benefits of longhand and digital note-taking.

Ultimately, we leave you with a learning secret: don’t take notes on a laptop if you plan to simply transcribe the lecture. How much you learn from your class is more important than how many words you capture.

 

References:

  1. Beck, K.M. (2014). “Note Taking Effectiveness in the Modern Classroom,” The Compass: Vol. 1: Iss. 1, Article 9. Arcadia University
  2. Bledsoe, Jr., D. (2011, October). Handwriting Speed in an Adult Population. Advanceweb.com
  3. DeZure, D., Kaplan, M., & Deerman, M. (2001). Research on Student Notetaking: Implications for Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors. https://crlt.umich.edu/sites/default/files/resource_files/CRLT_no16.pdf
  4. EdTech (2018, February). What Is a Modern Learning Environment?. EdTech
  5. Gierdowski, D. (2019, May). ECAR Study of Community College Students and Information Technology, 2019. EDUCAUSE
  6. GoodNotes (2018, May). The Best Note-Taking Methods. GoodNotes
  7. Li C. & Lalani F. (2020, April). The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever. This is how. World Economic Forum
  8. McGraw-Hill Education (2017, October). 2017 Digital Study Trends Survey. https://s3.amazonaws.com/ecommerce-prod.mheducation.com/unitas/highered/explore/sites/study-trends/2017-digital-trends-survey-results.pdf
  9. Mueller, P. & Oppenheimer, D. (2014, April). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. SAGE Journals
  10. NCES (2017). Number and percentage of households with computer and internet access, by state: 2017. NCES
  11. Paperlike (2020, June). Why Digital Note-Taking by Hand is Better than Using a Laptop. Paperlike
  12. Stacy, E. & Cain, J. (2015, September). Note-taking and Handouts in The Digital Age. NCBI
  13. Typing.com (2017, March). What is a good typing speed?. Typing.com
  14. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (n.d.). Common Note-taking Methods. UTC.edu
  15. Zhu, E., Kaplan, M., Dershimer, R., & Bergom, I. (2011). Use of Laptops in the Classroom: Research and Best Practices. CRLT Occasional Paper No. 30. ERIC