Longhand Trumps Typing for Remembering Your Notes

The next time you need to take notes, maybe during a meeting at work or when you’re on the phone with a customer service representative, you’ll be more likely to retain the information if you write by hand rather than typing on a digital device. That’s the finding of a study done at Princeton University and published in April 2014 in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers studied the note-taking habits of college students but the results could apply to any of us – including our grandchildren who may not even be learning penmanship in school these days but are thumb typing instead. A release from the Association for Psychological Science quotes lead author Pam Mueller as saying,“Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended — and not for buying things on Amazon during class — they may still be harming academic performance.”  

The release notes that Mueller was prompted to investigate the question after her own experience of switching from laptop to pen and paper as a graduate teaching assistant. “I felt like I’d gotten so much more out of the lecture that day,” says Mueller, who was working with psychology researcher Daniel Oppenheimer at the time. “Danny said that he’d had a related experience in a faculty meeting: He was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realized that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer, who is now at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, conducted a series of studies to investigate whether their intuitions about laptop and longhand note-taking were true.

In the first study, 65 college students watched one of five TED Talks covering topics that were interesting but not common knowledge. The students, who watched the talks in small groups, were either given laptops, which were disconnected from Internet, or notebooks. The participants were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes.

The students then completed three distractor tasks, including a taxing working memory task. A full 30 minutes later, they had to answer questions based on the lecture they had watched, including factual-recall questions such as “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?” and conceptual-application questions such as “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?” The results revealed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions.