Study Techniques that Improve Learning – Take Notes by Hand

The first part of this post can be found here: Do you know these study techniques that improve your child’s learning?

In a world that is becoming more and more digital with time, I thought the article from Scientific American – “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” – to be a very pertinent one. The article examines some studies on the effect of note taking in lectures by hand versus using a laptop and what they found was very interesting.

What’s the message?

If you want to remember more and gain a deeper understanding of what you hear in class, a seminar, or a lecture, it is better to write it out by hand than to type it directly into your laptop. More precisely, it is better to synthesise what is being said and to write it out by hand, in your own words.

Source: Pinterest – Write Shop

New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more.  Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops. – Scientific American

Source: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking – Psychological Science

Why are handwritten notes better?

Mentally processing the words versus mindlessly transcribing them

This is because writing by hand is slower than typing. Students who write out their lecture notes cannot transcribe the lecturer’s words verbatim so they must listen, analyse and summarise the information. This process is much more demanding of the brain than simply transcribing notes verbatim. Because of the mental work required, taking notes by hand increases comprehension and retention of information. On the other hand, students who use laptops to record lecture notes are able to type faster and are more likely to transcribe the lecture content word for word without really processing the information.

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. This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote a meaningful understanding or application of the information.

Let’s face it, the brain is lazy

And now for the really interesting part… If the problem with note taking is related to how much thinking is done while writing out the notes, what if laptop users did the same thing as hand-written note takers? Instead of transcribing the lecturer’s information word for word, the laptop users were advised to process the information first and write it out in their own words. It was assumed that should solve the problem. Unfortunately, it made no difference at all because the brain prefers to take the easier route possible. When a laptop is present, it is just too easy to mindlessly record notes when you can type almost as fast as the lecturer can speak.

Throwing in study time made no difference

Even when the students were given adequate time to study their notes before taking a test, those who used laptops were still outperformed by those who wrote their notes by hand. The premise behind this is that the notes are written in their handwriting and in their own words which makes it easier for the student to recall.

The Internet and other distractions

The studies above were done without internet connection so there were no online distractions for the students using laptops. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case now with wireless internet access available. Once you factor in, student learning goes right down the tubes.

When internet access is available, evidence suggests that when college students use laptops, they spend 40% of class time using applications unrelated to coursework and are more likely to fall off task. In one study with law school students, nearly 90% of laptop users engaged in online activities unrelated to coursework for at least five minutes, and roughly 60% were distracted for half the class.  – Scientific American

Extrapolating the information

When I was in Uni, some lecturers would put up slides with summary points of the content they were discussing. Many students would copy the slides verbatim. I would presume that this is the equivalent of transcribing notes on a laptop. Therefore it is worth remembering that the real message of this study is to write the notes in your own words, although you can start by leaving your laptop at home to avoid the temptation of letting your brain get slack.

Although technology allows us to do more in less time, it does not always foster learning. Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information. If we want students to synthesize material, draw inferences, see new connections, evaluate evidence, and apply concepts in novel situations, we need to encourage the deep, effortful cognitive processes that underlie these abilities. – Scientific American

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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