To help me remember things, I’ve always favoured writing them down with pen and paper. When I did my degree I knew that just studying a diagram in a book wasn’t good enough, if I wanted to remember it, I had to draw it myself, in my own way.
Nowadays when I go into meetings I notice a lot of people take notes using laptops, and I’m told that in university lecture theatres you are likely to see row upon row of students sitting behind glowing laptop screens.
Laptops can be a distraction – it’s easy to flick across to read email, buy things on Amazon, or get side-tracked by social media. But new research shows that even when laptops are used as intended – just for recording notes – they can harm academic performance.
The researchers found that laptop users’ notes contained more words but the benefit of more content was cancelled out by ‘mindless transcription’.
Researcher Pam Mueller was prompted to do the research after a discussion with a colleague who had been taking notes on a laptop in a meeting. He had looked up and realised that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.
After testing 65 students the researchers found that students who took notes on a laptop as opposed to writing longhand, performed equally well when recalling facts, but performed significantly worse on conceptual questions.
I found this particularly interesting because as a writer find that my work is much better when I write in longhand. Perhaps it gives my brain more time to think. For a short period a couple of years back I started writing articles solely on the computer, but I quickly realised that the quality of my work wasn’t as good. It lacked creativity and depth.
Maybe it’s because I can think things out more clearly when using a pen and paper. When I mentioned it to a friend he suggested that perhaps I could type faster than I think, wheras writing longhand was more the right speed for the brain to keep up.
The researchers suggest that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, and enabling them to study more effectively. Laptop users made more verbatim notes, but even when told explicitly to avoid verbatim notes it was hard to overcome the urge.
The researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later.
So I’m sticking to my pen and paper, and using my brain to process information, rather than mindlessly transcribing it.
*The research was carried out at Princeton University and the findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.