Remember when being in a classroom entailed your teacher’s lesson plan being scratched onto a chalkboard? Or watching as he or she rolled a projector into the room and brought forth the lesson onto a white screen? You listened and took notes with pen or pencil on paper, or you missed out. But things have changed, and students want learning to be as fast and as easy  as shopping or banking online has become, so they take notes on a laptop or iPad. They want to be able to do more, because modern society follows the motto that “more” is better. We want more money, more clothes, more data in a cellular plan. We want more tools to get things accomplished, and this holds true for the classroom, too.

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And laptops do, in fact, allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, interact more easily on papers and projects, and research and find information quickly. They can also take more notes, as students can type much faster than they can write, and tend to take notes verbatim.

The Study

It might seem entirely advantageous, then, for students to put down the pen and paper and pick up the laptop if they want to succeed in school. But new research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer suggests that students who write their notes on paper learn more than those who type their notes. To form this conclusion, Mueller and Oppenheimer executed three experiments in which they had students take notes in a classroom setting, and then had the students perform memory tests on factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. Half of the students took notes with a laptop, and the other half by hand.

The Findings

What the researchers found was that the students who took notes with a laptop did, indeed, take more notes, but they retained much less. In each study, those who wrote out their notes by hand performed better on every test.

Mueller and Oppenheimer theorized that these outcomes are the result of taking notes by hand requiring different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop. When students take notes by hand, for instance, they may not be able to write down every word in the lecture, so they listen, digest, and summarize, which forces the brain to work harder mentally, therefore fostering comprehension and retention.

Students who type simply produce a written record of the lecture, but do not use their brain to process the meaning of what is being taught.

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Mueller and Oppenheimer evaluated this theory by assessing the content of notes taken by hand versus laptop, including hundreds of students from Princeton and UCLA, with topics ranging from bats, bread, and algorithms, to faith, respiration, and economics. Analysis of the content proved that students who took notes via laptop had recorded the lecture verbatim, but this resulted in lower retention of the material.

What could be a plausible solution, then, for students who prefer the laptop? Instructing them to summarize instead of take verbatim notes? Unfortunately, no. Mueller and Oppenheimer explored this idea by warning the students of the repercussions of taking notes on the laptop, and asked them to think about the information and type the notes in their own words. But regardless, the laptop note takers still showed the same level of verbatim content with no increase in retention compared to students who didn’t receive a warning or instructions.

But what about using these verbatim notes to study for a test? Still not advantageous. When participants were given this opportunity, those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants.

The Takeaway

In a world where we want “more,” perhaps these findings can allow us to take a step back and realize that sometimes, getting back to the basics can increase our success.

And beyond altering students’ cognitive processes, laptops pose other threats in the classroom, including distractions by e-mail, instant messaging, social media, and web surfing. In fact, evidence shows that college students with laptops and access to internet spend 40% of class time using applications unrelated to coursework, are more likely to fall off task, and are less satisfied with their education.

While technology provides students innovative tools that can shape their educational experiences in positive and dynamic ways, the research conducted by Mueller and Oppenheimer certainly serves as a reminder that while technology may allow us to do more, it doesn’t always allow us to learn the most effectively.


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