The Benefits of No-Tech Note Taking

A year after banning students from taking notes on laptops, a professor reports on the results

March 04, 2015

The moment of truth for me came in the spring 2013 semester. I looked out at my visual-communication class and saw a group of six students transfixed by the blue glow of a video on one of their computers, and decided I was done allowing laptops in my large lecture class. "Done" might be putting it mildly. Although I am an engaging lecturer, I could not compete with Facebook and YouTube, and I was tired of trying.

The next semester I told students they would have to take notes on paper. Period.

I knew that eliminating laptops in my classroom would reduce distractions. Research has shown that when students use their laptops to "multitask" during class, they don’t retain as much of the lecture. But I also had a theory, based on my college experience from the dark ages—the 70s, aka, before PowerPoint—that students would process lectures more effectively if they took notes on paper. When students took notes on laptops they barely looked up from their computers, so intent were they on transcribing every word I said. Back in my day, if a professor’s lectures were reasonably well organized, I could take notes in outline format. I had to listen for the key points and subpoints.

Some of the students I teach are journalism majors. For them, taking notes by hand is an enormously helpful skill since journalists often have no choice but to take notes on paper. You can tape an interview, but transcribing tapes is inefficient when you’re on deadline, and you’re not going to pull out a laptop in somebody’s office or in the middle of a protest and start typing. Now, if you’re interviewing people over the phone, you might type as they talk, but if you try typing every single word your interview subjects say, you end up not really listening to them.

In laying down my no-tech note-taking decree, I explained that it would help students engage in the lectures and also pay off later in their careers. I use PowerPoint in my visual-communication course but only to outline the lecture and show examples of designs. I told students they would need to listen to what I said about each slide and selectively write down the important points. I said I believed they would remember more of my lectures by taking notes on paper.

It turned out my theory was right and now is supported by research. A study published last year in Psychological Science showed that students who write out notes longhand remember conceptual information better than those who take notes on a computer. "Whereas taking more notes can be beneficial," the article’s abstract reported, "laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning."

The researchers, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, wanted to learn if students could recall more factual and conceptual information from notes taken longhand or from those typed on a laptop. Mueller and Oppenheimer did a series of studies using 327 students on three campuses. They gave some students laptops and others pens and paper. The students watched TED talks and were told to take notes as they normally would in class.

In one study, students were tested 30 minutes after the lecture. In another they were tested a week later and allowed to study for 10 minutes beforehand. The students were asked questions about facts ("What is the purpose of adding calcium propionate to bread?") and concepts ("If a person’s epiglottis was not working properly, what would be likely to happen?").

Students tested right after a lecture tended to answer factual questions equally well regardless of how they took notes, but students who handwrote their notes did consistently better on conceptual questions. What’s more, when students were tested again a week later, the longhand note takers performed consistently better on both factual and conceptual questions.

The researchers found that students who used laptops were inclined to try to take notes verbatim—even when they were told not to. The longhand note takers took selective, organized notes because they couldn’t write fast enough to get everything down. As a result, they processed lectures more deeply, which allowed them to retain more information and even understand it better.

After my first semester without laptops, I gave my students a questionnaire to find out how they felt about taking notes longhand. My survey was of course unscientific. Still, I was heartened by the results: Roughly 86 percent of the 95 students who responded said they felt they paid the same or better attention in the class without a laptop in front of them. About 52 percent said they paid more attention. A third of the class said they always took notes longhand, which surprised me.

When I asked the open-ended question "Did you take notes differently because you had to write them down? If so, how?" I got a variety of responses ranging from "Yes! I couldn’t get everything down! I can’t write as fast as I can type!" to "I learn from writing things down, so it helped me a lot."

Their answers reinforced the note-taking study. The students who tried to transcribe my lectures, even without a laptop, hated taking notes longhand. The students who figured out how to take selective notes liked it.

Interestingly, test scores in my visual-communication course have gone up since I gave laptops the boot a year ago. Now I coach students on how to take notes longhand to help those who have not used that muscle much, because I am convinced that while laptops have a lot of good uses in the classroom, note taking is not one of them.

Carol E. Holstead is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas.