A recent study published in Psychological Science confronts the issue head-on. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer asked students to take notes on a 20-minute video lecture using either longhand or a computer that had been disabled for any other use. They wanted to remove the distractions that have given note-taking on computers lower marks for memory and comprehension.
“Even if you are using computers exactly as they’re supposed to be used, might that still be hurting learning?” is the question Mueller sought out to answer.
The two researchers set up three studies to test various conditions. In the first study, one group of undergraduate college students were told to watch a 20-minute TED Talk on a subject they weren’t likely to know much about and take notes by hand. The other group took notes on the computer.
“Students who took notes on laptops tended to transcribe the content verbatim,” Mueller said. Those students took many more notes, but seemed to process what they heard much less. In a test taken a few minutes after completing the lecture, students who had taken notes using longhand performed much better. The difference was particularly striking on conceptual questions, where students had to take two pieces of information they’d heard in the lecture and synthesize them into a conclusion.
The typing versus handwriting debate recalls a related, heated discussion over whether students should continue to learn handwriting. While the research is not conclusive, several researchers contend that writing by hand stimulates special neural circuits, leading to stronger reading ability, new idea generation and retention of information.
Mueller thinks there’s still hope for digital note-taking, but says students must be taught how to slow down and process information as they take it in. She thinks there could be promise in stylus technology, which would slow the pace at which a person can take notes, but would still allow for digital storage.
Some educators are taking long form notes to new levels, embracing the idea of sketchnotes, in which the ideas presented in a lecture are captured as a combination of words and images.
“I sat through two 45-minute lectures in high school social studies and not only was I super focused because I was doodling, I could also basically give the lecture afterwards,” said Shelley Paul, who at the time was director of learning design at Woodward Academy. “And if I look at the doodle again today for three to four minutes, I can basically remember it all again.”
Paul admits it can be hard to keep up with a fast paced lecture, but even the things she decides not to depict end up getting connected to the images she does draw. She’s been implementing the practice with students who love the freedom to doodle in class and who are making great connections between information in the process.
While unconventional, drawing as note-taking makes sense based on memory research, which shows that if multiple ideas can be condensed into an image, the brain stores all those related ideas as one. The image acts as a zip file for multiple ideas, helping to fit more into the limited short term memory.