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To type or not to type: Educational research in note-taking explained

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College students have all at one time asked themselves what is the best way to learn. What will help them learn the most, pay attention the most, and succeed the most on exams?

Experts in the field of educational psychology shared their thoughts and research in learning comprehension about which note-taking medium is the best strategy and found inconclusive results. 

Virginia Berninger, an educational psychology professor at the UW and expert in writing disabilities, believes that there are benefits to all types of writing and conducted three studies on optimal times to teach different styles and mediums of writing.

“What we found is that kids can learn all of it if you teach it,” Berninger said. “We need to get away from accepting one or another. We need to learn how to best teach various tools for learning.”

Stephen Peverly, a professor of the Teachers College at Columbia University and former director of school psychology, conducted research on skills related to taking good notes. Peverly’s findings suggest that writing information by hand may enable deeper processing of information compared to typing. 

“As far as my data are concerned, there are three skills predominantly related to taking good notes: handwriting speed, language comprehension, and sustained attention,” Peverly said.

Peverly suggests that students who have these three skills seem to take better notes. 

However, there is a lack of current published studies and consistency in this field of study.  

“Based on current research studies, there is no relationship in how you take notes to test outcomes,” Peverly said.

A high profile study in 2014 found that those who take notes on their laptop performed worse on conceptual questions than those who hand wrote notes. The researchers suggested that laptop note-takers tend to transcribe lectures verbatim and thus conduct shallower information processing.

“[Handwriting] helps us remember what we need to and use it in the moment better than just looking at something,” Berninger said. “It comes back to production and connection between minds and hand.” 

However, a more recent study suggests an insignificant effect favoring handwriting over typing notes in test performance. Researchers conducted an exact replication of the prior study and concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that hand note taking was better than typed. 

Those who support notetaking on laptops believe the method is more optimal for learning than handwritten notes because it allows students to collect information more quickly. 

Studies show that people tend to type faster than they can write.

“If you can gather information faster, you should be able to go back and study that information and learn more, however current research results do not suggest this,” Peverly said. 

Crucially, opponents of notetaking on laptops find the devices to be distracting to student learning. 

“Professors are not aways [the] biggest fan of having computers in their classrooms as they can be noisy, distracting, and may encourage online use for students,” Peverly said.

Supporters of handwritten notes find it easier to copy down diagrams and numbers with paper and pen than typing the information. Peverly points out that in lectures where visuals and statistics are included, students tend to prefer handwritten notes. 

“I prefer taking handwritten notes because it helps me remember information better. Some of my classes are also visual heavy so being able to draw the visuals out is helpful for connecting the information in my head,” said Meagan King, a junior at UW studying law, societies, and justice.

Peverly challenges some of these notions about the modality of note taking by suggesting that the method is less important, and rather the attendance and engagement in the classroom is what makes the difference for students. 

“Find some way to make a record of the lecture. At some point, revisit your notes to make sure they are complete.”

Peverly advises students to review their notes before the next class, ask clarifying questions, and to address questions that come to you while reviewing notes. 

“This will lead to deeper understanding of material.” 

Reach reporter Christine Lee at Twitter: @christinelee072

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