Category Archives: notetaking by hand

To hand write notes or to use technology?

As you or your kids prepare to return to school (here in Georgia some schools open the first week of August) , you might be considering the purchase of technology for note taking.  Should you?

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter, there were two kinds of technology to choose from:  a pen and reporter’s notebook or a tape recorder.  No laptops, tablets and smart phones then.  I opted for the old fashioned pen and paper for several reasons.

  • It was more reliable.  No machinery to malfunction, no tapes that could run out, no batteries that could die.  And my newspaper provided pens and reporters’ notebooks.
  • I thought more during interviews. With no tape recorder, I couldn’t tune out and let the machine do the work.  I needed to pay attention, to understand what the speaker was saying and to prepare follow-up questions.
  • Since I couldn’t write down everything, I needed to prioritize what was important either by summarizing or by quoting well-said ideas—of which there usually weren’t many. I became more of a paraphraser than a direct-quoter.
  • I could locate an idea from an interview quickly by paging through my notes. No need to hunt through long sections of tape for just one idea.
  • I wrote my final copy quickly. I could turn in a story and move on to the next one, while someone else was still transcribing from a machine, making me a valuable employee.

What has this to do with note taking in school today?  Research shows that college students who take notes by hand, paraphrasing and summarizing, do better understanding a lecture than do students who key in every word.  They do so for the same reason I wrote good interviews.  They listen.  They attempt to put ideas into a useful order and into their own words.  They question concepts as they listen even if they don’t raise their hands.  They focus.

On the other hand, technology has improved since my reporting days.  Today it’s possible to word search faster than I could page through my reporter notes.  If you remember to back up, your notes don’t get lost.  In fact, they exist in a cloud somewhere indefinitely, ready for you to access long after you’ve thrown out your composition notebook.

So should you buy note taking devices?  They rang from $200 to $600.  Many are in their infancy.

Here’s a compromise.  What if you hand write legibly, and when class is done or at the end of the day, take photos of your notes using your cell phone?  You always have your phone with you—right?—and so you’ll always have your notes as nearby as a clock on your phone.  If you have a reliable classmate, you can offer to photograph each other’s notes, and compare what you each thought important.

But can you hand write fast enough to keep up with your teacher?  For students no longer learning cursive, this can be a problem.  Maybe instead of investing hundreds in technology, invest $5 in a cursive handwriting notebook, and practice. Usually some combination of printing and cursive suffices for fast and readable handwriting.

For information about  note taking technology available, see an article by David Pierce in the July 16, 2018, edition of The Wall Street Journal, “Handwriting Finds Ways To Fit Into Digital Life.”

Which is better for taking notes—a laptop or handwriting?

For ideas which stick in the brain, taking notes by hand is better, according to Princeton and UCLA researchers*.

Their results are summarized in the chart below.

laptop longhand
word-for-word note taking  x
keeping up with lecturer  x
focusing on concepts x
recalling facts x x
remembering information longer x
using notes for review  x

The researchers say that even though taking notes in longhand is slower, this mode forces students to summarize the gist of the ideas presented.  To do that, the note takers must analyze what they are hearing as they are hearing it, evaluate  what is important and relate various ideas to one another.  Often as they take notes, they organize their notes, making them useful for further study.

The computer note takers, on the other hand, type almost every word but spend less time thinking about the lecture.  Their notes are copious but not digested, making them unweildly for study.

*For more information, go to http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html.  There the work of psychologist Dr. Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Dr. Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA can be read in Psychological Science, the journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  Their experiment was reported in 2014 after being conducted on college students.