Taking notes in class: by hand better than on a laptop for long-term comprehension?

04 junio 2014

Six writing things

I guess more and more of instructors are having the problem of facing a group of students, laptop over their tables, seeming to type notes at maximum speed about what’s been discussed, but seriously suspecting them to be on Skype, Facebook or the like. When they kindly ask them to put their laptops away, ineluctably students’ reply is “but I need it to take notes”. It had been said, since early use of computers in class, that hand notes are more effective for learning than using laptops for the same purpose, but just now, two educational psychologists, Pam A. Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel Oppenheimer  UCLA), bothered to conduct 3 experiments to confirm what was already in the air.

The experiments

In experiment 1, students were asked to take notes about a lecture in their regular way and, after 30 minutes, they were requested to answer some factual-recall questions (remembering facts and data) and some conceptual-application questions (understanding and transferring the concepts). Results showed that students using laptops had a lower performance, even if they took longer notes. Their notes seemed more a transcription, that, when there was no time to review, were less beneficial.

Experiment 2 included one group of participants that was instructed not to transcribe the lecture, whereas other two groups proceeded just as in experiment 1. In this case, the intervention (the specific request not to transcribe) showed no impact in verbatim content, meaning that students tended to take notes word by word anyway.

Experiment 3 tested for the effect of having time to review your notes, because, as Experiment 1 showed, laptop fans did have more information in their notes. However, even after this opportunity, longhand notes students showed higher performance.


Authors are very clear, even if, as good scientists, they avoid being categoric and merely suggest caution: “despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good” (p.8). In short, students using a computer tend to write word by word what is being said, whereas when you take hand notes, you synthesize and summarize content, thus activating your brain and consequently allowing better performance, i.e. facilitating learning.

By the way, authors also report former studies showing that laptops are a distraction, especially when Internet connection is available (see Yamamoto, 2007).



Gabriel Zúñiga – Director of Studies


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