Often, first-years prepare themselves for their first-ever university classes by telling themselves: “This year, I’m going to study hard and study well, and get some killer marks.” It’s an exciting prospect, a “new start” in a world beyond high school, and it’s imperative to be on top of your personal game. This is especially apparent these days, where technology has made both information and competition international.
But that might be why you should ditch your laptop—at least, for taking notes.
Wouldn’t a quick typing speed be better than the tedious task of writing in a notebook? Not quite. In a 2014 study—which, at this point, has become common knowledge among educators—Princeton’s Pam A. Mueller and UCLA’s Daniel M. Oppenheimer investigated whether or not students who typed up notes on laptops retained as much information as students who wrote everything down. In each and every case, the students who wrote down their notes understood core concepts better and were able to apply what they learned in superior ways. This wasn’t just limited to a few core subjects, Mueller and Oppenheimer assessed UCLA and Princeton students on content ranging from algorithms to zoology.
When you’re frantically typing up notes on your laptop, what exactly is happening compared to when you are writing things down by hand? It’s true that most of us find typing easier and quicker than writing, but as a result, there’s a greater tendency to directly write down whatever the lecturer is saying rather than pick and choose the important information. When your lecturer is going at a certain pace, adjusting your typing speed to match the lecturer’s speed makes it easier to just copy things verbatim. In contrast, it’s the slower speed of longhand that is the key to a higher retention rate. You certainly may not always be able to keep up with the lecturer, but your brain is able to better weigh what information is important, digest content more deeply, and perform the sort of “mental weightlifting” necessary to help internalize core concepts. Re-framing content in your own words is an important part of learning.
What about long-term retention, or just telling the students to be mindful of typing things up in their own words? Pam and Mueller investigated both situations, and the written word still beat the typed word when looking at information retention. Discussing the possible causes of this, Pam and Mueller postulated that the act of typing and the act of writing used different cognitive skill-sets. The intimate act of putting pen to paper and transcribing an idea helps solidify it in your brain in a better way than distantly pressing keys and watching letters appear on a screen.
This doesn’t mean that laptops are absolutely useless for learning. Laptops and other smart devices are portals into a universe of unprecedented information. They are fantastic tools when incorporated into active learning—like lecture games and real-time multiple-choice quizzes. Furthermore, learning strategies are different from person to person. A laptop might work for you better, and that’s fine. At the very least, if you might one day decide to try out a nice notebook for your first lecture, there will be less of an inclination to type things up while posting memes on Facebook at the same time.
Source: Mueller PA, Oppenheimer DM. The pen is mightier than the keyboard advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science. 2014 Apr 23:0956797614524581.