It’s that time of year again: back to school shopping season.
The school supplies flyers are out and lists are ready to be checked off. All that’s left is to load up the van and head out to the big box store.
For university students, particularly those fresh out of high school, it’s time to settle on the laptop they’ve got or upgrade to a flashy new one — computers now being necessary purchases for post-secondary enrolment.
Say goodbye to exercise books: as more and more professors upload notes, send out slides and post lecture audio, university lecture halls abound with increasing numbers of laptops. Indeed, many students now type all their notes.
No doubt, after years of putting pencil to paper, laptops are alluring. Word processors are clean, forgiving, corrigible mediums for writing and making mistakes — and they’re a much quicker way of jotting down whatever concept the prof is rattling through. For lots of students, they’re a reasonable adaptation to a new environment.
But new research from Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, says the seemingly archaic pen may actually win the day over the keyboard for taking notes in class.
Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, the psychologists behind “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” found that typing notes interferes with students’ ability to process and remember information.
And it’s not just because of the lecture hall distractions laptops often promote — social media alerts, Internet connectivity, news updates, online games and the like.
In the study, after watching a 15-minute TED talk, students who typed their notes performed slightly better on factual questions than did their handwriting peers. But on conceptual questions, they recalled less material and performed significantly worse.
Mueller’s and Oppenheimer’s paper found that while speedy typing allowed students to quickly copy down notes, they concentrated on heedlessly writing whatever their instructor was saying verbatim and lost track of what the lecture was about.
Notes were more complete, but the focus was on transcribing the lecture, not actually listening to the information being conveyed.
Meanwhile, the relative sluggishness of handwriting, often the reason students switch to laptop note-taking, required students to actively listen to instruction, forcing them to process the information being transmitted and to decide what was the most important. Rather than simply rote note taking, students had to triage the information flying at them, prioritize what they saw as significant and then write that down. It’s a less robotic and more involved learning process.
The research found that even when students taking notes on their laptops were explicitly told to take notes in their own words, they were still more likely to write more words than their longhand note-taking peers and to copy exactly what the lecturer was saying. Despite the prompt, they again performed worse on conceptual questions than their handwriting peers.
And that’s without any distractions. Typing word for word and not absorbing enough information is one thing, but missing whole concepts because of a Facebook notification or an urge to scroll through Tumblr — whether on your screen or another person’s — is quite another. Internet distractions multiply the pitfalls of laptop note-taking exponentially.
That said, if you’re a student, definitely pick up a laptop for school. You’ll need it for sure.
But think twice before hurtling head first into keyboard note-taking and leaving your pen and paper in the dust. They may take a little more time and they might turn out a little messier, but in the long run, you’re probably better off with good old handwritten notes.
Patrick Butler, who’s from Conception Bay South, is studying journalism at Carleton University. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.