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Pen and Paper Versus Laptop: Is There a Clear Winner in the Note-Taking Olympics?

While both pen and keyboard have been put through contrived trials by scientists, it remains to be seen which is best for note-taking in class.

Is the pen really mightier than the keyboard? I know a professor who begins each semester by pointing out that, according to this one study, students perform better on tests when their notes were taken by hand rather than on a computer. It bears repeating that a single study is almost always never enough. Studies are all flawed in slightly different ways—their sample size, their data analysis, even how closely they attempt to echo reality in a laboratory setting—but analyzed together, these studies can give us a meaningful answer as we account for their unique flaws.

Note-taking and note-reviewing have a substantive benefit on student performance. Why is that? Scientists have narrowed it down to two possible answers. The process of noting something down could itself be beneficial, although the evidence on this is mixed. What is clear however is that the product (the notes) does boost academic achievement substantially, even if the notes were borrowed from someone else and not written by the student being tested. The product is important while the process of note-taking may or may not be.

But what does the scientific literature have to say about the best way to take notes in class? We have so many more options available to us since my parents’ generation, like laptops, tablets, smartphones, and apps designed for note-taking. Should we scribble or type away?

The answer is not intuitively obvious, as there are both advantages and disadvantages to each method. Humans on average type faster than we write with a pen, which allows for the recording of more information, even verbatim transcripts. But computers are host to a number of distractions in class, including alerts, YouTube, and social media. A Word document is also a poor medium for information that goes beyond sentences, like charts and graphics. With regards to the pen, its relative slowness means the student often has to decide on the spot what’s important and what’s not, and how best to rephrase the information and organize it. This sounds like a boon for comprehension… but it requires more brain energy, which may mean important details spoken by the professor end up ignored while the brain wrestles with the information.

The study I mentioned at the top—literally called “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard” —is really interesting. It’s a series of three experiments involving university students watching short lectures or TED Talks and being quizzed about them almost immediately after. Two of these experiments did not allow the students to review their notes (a situation that does not reflect midterms and finals) and both “pen” and “keyboard” groups did equally well on questions pertaining to facts. When it came to understanding concepts, though, the keyboard group did worse. The final experiment allowed half the students in each group to study their notes for ten minutes, and the pen users who had studied were the clear winners. So death to the laptop; all hail the ballpoint! Right?

Not so fast. I had to, appropriately enough, hand-write notes on this topic and review them before writing this, because the few studies that exist on this important academic question—and there are indeed few of them—are conflicting and obsessed with dissecting this question into tiny fragments. There’s Luo’s study which looked at how good students were at remembering images versus text, and which tried to tease out contributions from the process of note-taking from those having to do with the notes themselves, and overall the conclusion was that pen was best. But there’s Bui’s study that reported that the students who took verbatim notes on a computer did better than those who hand-wrote… when no time was given to study the notes. And in their last computer-only experiment, they pitted students who were told to take verbatim notes against others who were told to organize their notes according to concepts, and divided those two groups into “study” versus “no study”. The result? Students who took verbatim notes and were allowed to study them did better on the quiz the next day than those who had studied their much leaner, concept-driven notes. And there’s a final study, this one by Fiorella, which presented the course material on, wait for it, flashcards. In this rather strange scenario, the computer note-takers outperformed the pen wranglers.

My take-home message from reading and re-reading these studies (now’s the time to whip out your pen or keyboard, as this is exam material) is that scientists seem more interested in learning about how we learn by devising highly controlled (and contrived) scenarios than in answering the more pragmatic question on the minds of every student: what kind of notes should I take? And since asking for research funds, recruiting participants, analyzing results and publishing papers takes time, research is always a step or two behind reality. Case in point: none of these studies looked at tablets, which seem like a great way of combining the advantages of both pen and keyboard.

And here’s an extra headache for researchers who investigate note-taking: a 2019 survey of a few hundred undergraduate students revealed that 74% took notes differently depending on the class. Organic chemistry may benefit from the freedom of the pen, while history’s torrent of dates and facts may be better captured by nimble fingers tapping keys. Throw in physical disabilities, which may prevent the efficient use of pens for some, and the note-taking landscape becomes a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

What we can say with good certainty is that notes are beneficial even if the act of taking them may or may not be, and that reviewing them before a test really helps. That’s an important point to make in this age of online courses. In that 2019 survey, while 96% of students reported taking notes often or always, the percentage dropped dramatically to 49% when the courses were available online.

Beyond stating the importance of having notes, we’re left with preference. Although technology has changed dramatically since my parents’ youth, I can’t say the science-based advice on note-taking has followed suit.

Take-home message:
 •The process of taking notes during class may or may not be beneficial to the student, but the notes themselves and being able to review them before an exam have been shown to be highly valuable
• It is unclear at this point which method of taking notes (pen, laptop, or tablet) is best, and it may be that different subjects lend themselves more to one method over the other


@CrackedScience

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