There’s just no substitute for good, old-fashioned pen and paper.
If you want to remember something, it’s best to physically write it down on paper, not type it out digitally on your laptop or tablet, according to a recent study published in Psychological Science.
The study was inspired by a Princeton University psychological scientist, Pam Mueller. When Mueller was a graduate teaching assistant, she said she normally took her laptop to lectures and meetings to take notes, but one day she forgot it.
“I felt like I learned a lot more (that day),” she said.
In a series of tests, Mueller examined different note-taking strategies and their effect on a student’s memory. In the first study, Mueller had one group of students take notes on a TED talk using only pen and paper, while another group took notes on the same talk, but used laptops. Each group was then tested on its ability to recall what they had listened to.
While both groups were able to remember most of the material regarding facts, it was the pen and paper group that scored considerably higher on questions of conceptual understanding.
“Students who took notes on the laptop were basically transcribing the lecture,” said Mueller. “Because we write by hand less quickly, those who took notes with pen and paper had to be more selective, choosing the most important information to include in their notes. This enabled them to study the content more efficiently.”
Mueller’s final study gave both the notepad group and the laptop group a week to study their notes before returning for the test a week later. Mueller expected to see a balance between the two group's scores. Surprisingly, however, the pen and paper group still scored higher.
“Even though laptop note-takers had more content written down, they hadn’t processed it in the same way initially,” said Mueller.
While traditional note taking might seem logical, the fact is that more and more Americans are relying on their tech gadgets to capture information.
In fact, 26 percent of Americans surveyed in late 2014 reported owning a laptop, smartphone and tablet. That’s a 16 percent increase from the mere 10 percent in 2011. With so many devices for every situation, it’s pretty easy to whip out a phone or tablet, rather than digging around the schoolbag or office for pens and paper.
Although there is nothing inherently wrong with digital note taking, Kenneth Kiewra, educational psychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says it shouldn’t become a brainless task.
“Students are notoriously incomplete note-takers,” said Kiewra, “The laptop has potential because people can record more with a laptop, but we need to get them to not do it mindlessly.”
For Mueller, the way you take notes should depend on the situation.
“There are times when taking notes by hand can be much more beneficial, and there are times when your laptop is the right choice,” she said.
If you’re in need of in-depth understanding of material, such as during a conference or a lecture, taking notes using pen and paper is likely to give you better concentration and more complete listening. When you’re writing by hand, you’re requiring your brain to do more heavy lifting.
If you need to record something verbatim, such as copying down instructions or conducting an interview in which you need a quote, use the laptop.
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