Want to do better at exams? Take notes by hand - NOT on a laptop

 

Students who write notes by hand during lectures perform better on exams than those who use laptops, according to a new study - even when the computers are disconnected from the Internet to avoid distractions.

In fact not only do handwritten notes appear to help students better understand lectures right away, but they may also lead to superior revision in the future.

Students are increasingly using laptops for note-taking because of the speed and legibility they confer. But research into how note-taking affects students’ academic performance has found that laptop users are less able to remember and apply the concepts they have been taught, despite making more notes than students who write by hand.

The study was carried out by Daniel Oppenheimer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, and Pam Mueller, a psychology graduate student at Princeton University. They performed a series of experiments that aimed to find out whether using a laptop increased the tendency to make notes "mindlessly" by transcribing word for word.

In the first test, students were given either a laptop (disconnected from the Internet) or pen and paper. They all listened to the same lectures and were told to use their usual note-taking strategy. 30 minutes after the end of the talk, they were examined on their ability to recall facts and on how well they understood concepts.

The researchers found that laptop users took nearly twice as many notes as those who wrote by hand, which can be useful. However, the typists performed considerably worse at remembering and applying the concepts they had been taught. Both groups scored similarly when it came to memorising facts.

The researchers’ report said: "While more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop, the benefit disappears.

“Verbatim note-taking, as opposed to more selective strategies, signals less encoding of content.”

In another experiment aimed at testing long-term recall, students took notes as before but were tested a week after the lecture, with a chance to revise beforehand. This time, the students who wrote notes by hand performed significantly better at both parts of the exam - even though some of the faster typists had managed to transcribe most of the lecture verbatim.

Taken together these two studies suggest that handwritten notes are not only better for immediate learning and understanding, but that they also help embed information for future reference.

In a final test, the researchers specifically told some of the laptop users not to take verbatim notes. The students were told that "people who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much".

But despite being explicitly aware of the potential pitfalls, members of this group still got lower scores in both parts of the exam, suggesting that taking notes by hand really is a superior technique.

The findings will be published in a paper called "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note-Taking" in the Psychological Science journal.

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