Take Notes With Pen and Paper

by Site Author

Paper is a theme on this blog, and a recent study brings me back to that theme. Two psychologists, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, wrote a paper called “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard.”

The authors paid undergraduates at Princeton to watch TED Talks. Half the undergraduates were told to take notes with a laptop and the other half were given legal pads. The authors then evaluated the students’ notes and their understanding of the material.

The authors first simply counted the number of words in each batch of notes. The laptop-using students took more notes. But, since they could type very quickly, most of their notes were simple transcriptions of the TED talks.

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Next, the authors quizzed the students on the content of the TED talks. The figure above plots the students’ performance on those quizzes. Students who took notes longhand clearly outperformed those who used laptops.

What’s more, the authors tried to help out the laptop-using students by warning them not to simply transcribe the TED talks. Students who were given laptops and those warnings are labeled the “laptop intervention group” in the figure above. And it’s clear that the warnings did not eliminate the gap between pen and keyboard. No matter which way you cut it, laptops really set back the students’ ability to learn.

It’s also worth pointing out that the authors gave the laptop-using students an enormous advantage: the laptops were not connected to the internet. And yet even in a context in which students could not check their e-mail or Facebook, they still didn’t perform as well as students armed with just a pen.

Computers are obviously changing everything. But perhaps there are some things that computers should not change. For instance, how we take notes.