The posted piece - Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away - cites the Psychological Science article by Princeton’s Pam Mueller and and University of Southern Carolina’s Daniel M. Oppenheimer. The pair simply compared the quality of learning by way of memory test between two groups: those who hand wrote their notes and those who were instructed to take notes on a laptop. Also discussed in a Scientific American article, their findings, like many studies before them, are clear: “Content analysis of the notes consistently showed that students who used laptops had more verbatim transcription of the lecture material than those who wrote notes by hand. Moreover, high verbatim note content was associated with lower retention of the lecture material. It appears that students who use laptops can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion, with little analysis or synthesis by the brain.”
So the consensus among my colleagues and with much of the academic research on the matter is that handwriting notes is superior to typing them because handwriting notes forces us into higher cognitive functions like evaluation (what do I keep, what can I leave out?). Typed notes, on the other hand, result in mindless, “verbatim transcription,” which always produced lower assessment results.
But we would be too hastily condemning our future computer overlords if we blamed them for the deficiency in learning. Mueller’s research identifies a root problem: “verbatim note content.” The parroting, as my colleague says. Now is this result a fault of using the computer, or of how the computer is used?
Let’s not confuse conduciveness with responsibility. After all, transcription is something one can do with a pen and paper, too - it’s just more difficult. Computers permit, by merit of the speed with which people can type, students to default to simple recording, but hand-writing notes - as mentioned above - forces students to think, evaluate, and condense simply because students cannot feasibly record every word. The higher quality notes are a result of simple survival. Academic Darwinism at its best.
Clearly the issue is not in what medium one takes notes, but the types of notes one takes. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason I couldn’t take the same caliber of conscientious notes on Word or Google Docs, as long as a I refuse the temptation to default into transcription (and block any other distractions like social media).
Additionally, this only concerns using word processors to take notes. Before students put away their laptops, as the article suggests, maybe they should try a concept map app like Lucidchart or Microsoft’s OneNote. Such platforms allow for conceptual organization, flagging and highlighting, inserting or drawing graphics, linking to supplemental sources or texts advised/mentioned by a teacher, and - with the right tools - doodling in the margins (I remain partial to choreographing kung fu scenes between stick people). Furthermore, digitally stored info can easily be ingested into other apps like Quizlet, copied and moved to other study platforms, or just reorganized for the sake of chunking. I’m guessing this form of note taking would produce more favorable results than if one wrote out by hand a word-for-word transcription of a lecture.
Sure, I can do all of that with pen and paper, too. The computer just makes it easier, just as it makes it easier for students to parrot lectures rather than think during them. Like all tools, the key to its acceptance rests in the manner in which we use it.
But most students don’t use their computers as described above, a result most likely due to our tendency to treat digital resources like fancy, expedient versions of traditional, handwritten resources. We do the same thing, but faster, an attitude propagated by our publishing article after article praising the old-fashioned way rather than exploring the innovative possibilities of the new. As such, the conclusion that handwritten notes are superior to the typed notes is a pragmatic compromise. There’s no proof on the inherent value of the pen, but ample evidence of our failure to adjust our perspective and properly maximize our use of alternative resources. The problem is parroting and the ease with which laptops allow people to enter a rote mindset, not the computers themselves. Cognition is the variable, not hardware.
There seems only one major variable left that could pose a problem to my thesis: the human eye. How we actually scan the page and our writing while using pen and paper is rather distinct from how we type on a computer, depending on how one types. This factor isn't mentioned in the articles, so perhaps others have ruled it out as a factor - or perhaps it has yet to be studied. Either way, until someone takes an empirical look (maybe they have and I could not find it), anything else on it here would be conjecture.
But first I’d like to see researchers like Mueller and Oppenheimer tackle the nuance of note-taking form in future studies. What happens when the dependent variable isn’t a computer, but a note taking strategy that happens to be enacted on a computer? They may prove me wrong - many have. But until they do, I’ll defer to my note-taking strategies rather than a pen and paper.