Research Suggests That We Should Ban Laptops & Require Note-taking with Pens

I apologize. This title is deceptive. Research doesn’t suggest that we should ban laptops, but I suspect that some will jump to such conclusions after reading a recent report comparing note taking on laptops and versus pen and paper.

Perhaps you saw the articles showing up on the web based upon a June 2014 study published by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer. The original report was titled, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.” If you have access to an academic library, I encourage you to find and read the original report in Psychological Science instead of getting the information second-hand from here or any other blog post or article.

The focus of the report is upon the impact of taking notes on laptops in class compared to using pen and paper. Early in the essay, they explain two hypotheses behind the benefits of note taking: the encoding hypothesis and the external storage hypothesis. The encoding hypothesis suggests that the benefits of note taking come from the process through which one goes to take notes. As people take notes they summarize, put things into their own words, create concept maps, etc. In contrast, people who just write word for word what is being spoken are less likely to get the encoding benefits from note-taking. There are also external storage benefits, which refers to the ability to review the content later. There is a record of research indicating that both are benefits of note taking.

With this in mind, the researchers set up an experiment involving 67 Princeton students watching a 15-minute TED talk while taking notes in their ordinary way. Some were asked to do it on a laptop. Others used a pen and paper. After 30-minutes of activities that distracted students from thinking about the video, they were given an assessment. The researchers found a positive correlation between the amount of notes taken and performance on the assessment. They also found a negative correlation between verbatim note taking and performance on the assessment. Students were more likely to take notes verbatim when using a laptop, although they tended to take more notes.

Then thy conducted a second study.  This time they examined 151 students from UCLA. Again, students were asked to watch a video and take notes with the following instructions:

We’re doing a study about how information is conveyed in the classroom. We’d like you to take notes on a lecture, just like you would in class. Please take whatever kind of notes you’d take in a class where you expected to be tested on the material later—don’t change anything just because you’re in a lab.” p. 1162

A second group got these instructions:

“We’re doing a study about how information is conveyed in the classroom. We’d like you to take notes on a lecture, just like you would in class. People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word for word what the speaker is saying.” p. 1162

They completed the study using a similar approach to the first, taking the groups through activities that would distract students from thinking about the video followed by an assessment. The goal of this second study was to determine if simple instructions about the downside of verbatim note taking would potentially mitigate against the negative impact of such a strategy on a laptop. They found that long-hand note takers “performed better” on the assessment. The students who took notes long hand wrote less but also included fewer verbatim notes. The explain that, “The instruction to not take verbatim notes was completely ineffective at reducing verbatim content” (p. 1163).

They did a third study as well, this time listening to less interesting lectures and then coming back a week later to take a test on the content. Some were given ten minutes to study their notes. Others took the test right away. In the end, participants who had a chance to study and they took long hand notes outperformed all other groups.

In discussion of the three studies, the authors wrote, “The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even—or perhaps especially—when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking” (p. 1166).

Now that I’ve briefly described the study (it is better to get a copy and read it for yourself), let’s get back to the terribly misleading title of my post, “Research Report Suggests That We Should Ban Laptops & Require Note-taking with Pens.” That title is a stretch. This study isn’t adequate to conclude such a thing, but it does challenge us to ask some questions. What are the potential implications for this study? Should it lead us to ban laptops from classrooms, requiring students to take all notes using a pen and paper? Or, while not the main purpose of this study, perhaps this serves as a wake-up call that it isn’t enough to instruct students to take notes and throw out a few words about how to do it. Reading this study, I was compelled to further understand the research on the most effective strategies for note taking in general. What really helps us learn? Once we discover that, what if we intentionally, persistently taught (not just told, but taught) students to be excellent note takers, with excellence being defined by the extent to which the notes help us remember and learn.

A study like this shouts for us to use the digital revolution in education as opportunity to get informed about something that has a long history in education, but there is limited common knowledge by teachers about what truly does and does not work…something like note taking. How many other common practices in classrooms are similarly promoted without a substantive understanding of the research behind the practice? As I ask myself this question, I must confess that my list is long. I have so much to learn. This is a wake-up call for us to dive into the research, maybe to conduct some of our own, but to build a growing and solid set of research-informed principles that can guide how we help students become high-impact learners.

In the meantime, perhaps there is wisdom in being caution about simply adding a new technology to an old practice, expecting no impact or maybe even hoping for something better. As schools are moving to one-to-one programs, this report is an important caution. How are those one-to-one schools teaching students about how to leverage these tools to improve their learning (based upon empirical research, not just assumptions) or how to set them aside for more effective alternatives (when the research supports that)? How are we teaching students to use note taking as an opportunity to think deeply about what they are learning, to grapple with the content in ways that is likely to increase understanding and retention of what is learned? Or, perhaps there are strategies that are completely different from traditional note taking, whether one is doing with a pen and paper or a laptop. Research reports like these remind me that, while there is much that we know about effective learning, there is so much more for us to learn. There are so many more studies to conduct.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is the author of Missional Moonshots, Assistant Vice President of Academics, Associate Professor of education, and a frequent keynote speaker and consultant on topics related to educational innovation and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and the intersection of education and digital culture. Opinions expressed here do not reflect those of his primary employer(s).