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Taking notes? There’s a memory advantage to using pen and paper

By Jessica Love

May 1, 2014


 

As I write this post on my laptop, I am doing a few other things, too: watching videos from my Facebook feed, Gchatting a friend, confirming on Twitter that “Gchat” can be a transitive verb, and using a clever infographic to revisit, for no purpose whatsoever, how much rent I should’ve paid. With great Internet access comes great responsibility. Any student sitting in a classroom, with a computer on her lap, knows about the temptation. But there’s another reason, besides distractibility, why using your laptop to take notes during a meeting or lecture may not be optimal. The very act of typing notes, as opposed to writing them out longhand, seems to hurt our memory for the new information.

In a new study in Psychological Science, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer had students take notes while watching TED Talks. Some students walked into a room equipped with laptops (unconnected to the web), while the rest were provided with pen and paper. About a half hour after watching the talks, students were tested on the content. For strictly factual questions, the note-taking method didn’t seem to matter. But for more conceptual questions—“How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”—the typists remembered fewer correct responses than the scribblers.

This low-tech advantage also held when students were allowed to review their notes before taking a test. In another study, students returned to the lab to be tested a full week after watching the videos. Some were handed their notes to review. Of those, laptop note-takers again performed more poorly than those whose notes were handwritten.

Why is typing so hard on the memory? Most of us can type more quickly than we can write by hand, which allows us to produce more. This is terrific—more is often better. But all this ease and dexterity also tends to lull us into “mindless transcription” mode. For the typists, researchers noted “greater verbatim overlap with the lecture” than for longhand note-takers. Why bother to think deeply about what we are learning, and how our notes should be structured, when we can just do our damnedest to type, verbatim, everything as it is being said? When we type quickly, we also spend less time with any given piece of information—important, because memories take time to encode. (For similar reason, hard-to-decipher fonts—which slow us down—also tend to boost our memory for what we’ve read.)

The study offers an obvious takeaway: don’t let your mind go on the lam just because your fingers can keep up with a speaker. Still, there remains a place for digital note-taking—at least for those who can avoid online rabbit holes. Because while paper is fine for taking notes about a TED Talk or two, notes about an entire series of them could get unwieldy. How did the researchers begin their analysis of the handwritten notes their participants had taken? By typing them up, of course.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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