Take notes on paper (a suggestion based on research and reflection)

What does the research say about reading and writing on screens? And how does that research guide us towards a more mindful decision about when students should read and write on screens or paper?

One study suggests that handwriting notes is better for processing than typing notes.

There are a few interesting findings in the study called “The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, which was also reported on by some other site.

A Study on Paper vs. Laptop Notes

The study required participants to watch TED talks and take notes either by hand on paper or on a laptop. Later, students answered both “factual recall” and “conceptual application” questions about the content. This sounds just like something that might happen in one of our own classes, no?

A few overarching results:

  • Students who typed their notes tried to copy as much of the lecture as possible
  • Students who took longhand notes wrote significantly fewer words than those who typed their notes AND
  • The amount of notes that a student took affected their performance on the assessment BUT
  • The more powerful indicator was the amount of verbatim copying that students did in their notes.
  • The more verbatim copying that a student did in their notes, the worse they did on the assessments.

Now, let’s look at some specifics.

Taking notes on paper: fewer words, more synthesis

During the first round of research, the participants were given no directions about how to take notes, and they took the assessment on the same day as they took their notes. Here’s what the researchers concluded after this first round:

“Although taking more notes, thereby having more information, is beneficial, mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review.”

So then….the researchers tried to determine if the typing or the verbatim notes made more of an impact on student learning. During round two, they told the participants on the laptops to take notes, but to use their own words instead of copying the lecture verbatim. Again, this feels like an instruction that an English or History teacher might give.

The results: “The instruction to not take verbatim notes was completely ineffective at reducing verbatim content.”

This is the part that feels consistent with my own experience as a teacher. Whenever providing students an opportunity to take notes on paper or laptops, a few students are resistant to use anything but their laptop. It also seems that they robotically copy what I say or present, instead of paraphrasing the ideas in their own words.

For round two, the students who wrote the most notes, in their own words, on paper did the best on both factual and conceptual level questions.

From the study: “The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even—or perhaps especially—when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking.”

But wait…the laptop students took more notes. So what if they had the chance to study?

The third phase of the study involved a several-day wait between the time when the students took notes and when they completed the assessment. The idea was that the students who took notes on the laptop had a more complete picture of the lecture to study from, so they might do better on the assessment if given the chance to study this larger amount of information.

The results:

  • Again, students who took notes by hand wrote less
  • Students who took notes by hand did less verbatim copying
  • Even though the students who wrote more generally scored better, the students who did less verbatim copying also did better
  • So, overall, the biggest effect on assessment performance was whether or not the students wrote on paper or laptops.

One study doesn’t make a law

We have to be careful about making our educational decisions based on research alone, because there is so much nuance and context involved in every one of our teaching decisions (and the same goes for every study we read).

There are students with special needs, students with certain preferences that have to be appeased or at least acknowledged, and the fact that we can’t possibly read every single study about every pedagogical decision we are making.

But this one just feels like it makes sense. I know that’s not the best reason for something, but the combination of gut instinct plus this convincing study begins to make me think that are a certain set of practices that can be deemed paper-appropriate or screen appropriate. Note taking might be the first of those processes that I strictly deem as a print only activity in my classroom.

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