Students: Longhand Note-Taking May Improve Conceptual Processing and Memory


If you are not doing as well as you would like on school exams it may not be stress that is interfering with your concentration.

Although taking notes by hand during class may no longer be the norm, it could still be the most productive way to record lecture information. New research suggests note-taking on a laptop may be detrimental to the learning and recall of conceptual information.

The author of the research, as a graduate teaching assistant, noticed she had gotten more out of class lectures when she left her laptop at home and took notes with pen and paper. This prompted her to look into the matter.

Laptop or Spiral Notebook

The initial study involved 65 college students who were asked to watch TED Talks on interesting, uncommon topics. The students watched in small groups and were instructed to take notes either in paper notebooks or on a laptop. (The laptops did not have internet connection).

After watching the TED Talk, each student finished three mental tasks, one involving memory. Thirty minutes later, they were asked questions about the TED video they had viewed earlier.


  1. Both types of note takers—handwritten and laptop—did equally well in recalling facts from the TED video.
  2. The laptop note takers did significantly worse in answering conceptual questions related to the video.

Longhand and Mental Processing

Researchers noticed that the laptop user’s notes were wordier and contained more verbatim material (copied word for word) from the TED Talks. Generally, the students who took more notes answered the recall questions better, but so did the students with less verbatim overlap.

This suggests that taking abundant notes is less helpful when the notes are a mindless copy of what the lecturer says.

“It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently,” write the researchers.

Later in the research, when students were asked to avoid writing verbatim notes during the Talks, the study results were similar. It could be that the habit of taking word for word notes is difficult to break.

A week after initially watching the TED Talks the student participants were given an opportunity to look over their notes before taking a second recall test. The longhand note takers—with less verbatim copy in their notes—once again performed the best on conceptual questions.

What Works Best for You?

The researchers know it is unlikely their study will influence many people to switch from laptop to paper and pen note taking. They do hope it will cause people to consider how they take notes and use the method that serves them best. Some of the new stylus technologies that keep an electronic record of handwritten notes might be worth experimenting with.

Source: Science Daily
Photo credit: Ed Summers


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