Recently, Mueller and Oppenheimer (1) published an interesting paper in the journal Contemporary Educational Psychology titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. In the abstract of the paper, Mueller and Oppenheimer, claim:

We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

What was concerning, however, was the final sentence of the paper which said:

For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.

While the study showed that there was improved memory retention and test scores through longhand note-taking, it seemed a little strong to conclude that “laptops may be doing more harm than good” in classrooms. There are practical reasons why student device ownership and use in classrooms has increased in recent years, and what is lost in this statement, are the benefits laptops and other devices offer to students, and why they’re used in lectures and seminars in the first place.

Not all note-takers are created equal

Note-taking is a fundamental part of students’ learning experience at university. In their paper, Mueller and Oppenheimer have a point that making more notes doesn’t mean making better notes and mindless verbatim note-taking does little to reinforce concepts. Indeed, they allude to an interesting argument that handwritten notes may involve more cognitive processes, allowing concepts to better embed themselves into memory, leading to an improvement in conceptual learning from lectures.

However, note-taking as a skill is rarely ever taught, and students are expected to know how to take notes in a lecture format, which, to many undergraduate students in particular, is an alien concept coming from classroom environments. Longhand note-taking is particularly problematic for students with neurodiverse conditions and learning disabilities. Williams (2) found that 56.4% of students with learning disabilities out of a cohort of 642 students were unable to take notes during live lectures, and technical solutions such as laptops can be a lifeline to these students to be able to better interact with lecture and class materials.

Indeed, Bring-your-own-device (or BYOD), particularly laptops, amongst students are almost ubiquitous, with 99% of LSE students reporting to own at least a laptop, and 62% of students willing to use laptops during class (3). Some of the reasons why students use laptops in lectures to take notes is that longhand notes don’t have the durability of typed notes, which can be standardised through font, magnified, highlighted and edited for greater legibility, printed, stored and accessed in multiple places using free and easily accessible services such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

"I can't even read my own notes!" - Image by  Susan Ssebatindira (2014)

Legibility of longhand notes can be an issue – Image by Susan Ssebatindira (2014)

Typed notes are also more easily shared and remixed amongst peers using email, social media, Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) etc. Digital notes can be directly linked to lecture slides, lecture recordings, related journal articles, blogs, media images and videos, all of which can not only help contextualise the notes, but also expand their scope by bringing in resources outside of the lecture theatre.

Even in today’s hyper-connected world with students having almost ubiquitous access to laptops, smartphones and the internet, students will still make notes by hand out of for a number of reasons, including preference. But, there doesn’t need to be a dichotomy between typing and writing, as solutions exist which bridge the gap between digital and longhand note-taking. Tablets and smartphones now offer several apps which allow handwritten notations to be made on digital documents for free or a nominal cost. Apps, such as Paper for the iPad, also allow students to create drawings and charts, which could be stored in cloud services and shared with peers through some of the media mentioned above.

Is note-taking really the issue here?

Perhaps, the point here is not that note-taking is better done by hand, but perhaps that student practices are changing as devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones offer significant functionalities in lectures and classrooms which may not fully utilised by the pedagogical models used in lectures. Students not paying attention and not making effective notes is by no means a new concept, as any teacher throughout the ages would testify.

medieval lecture

The lecture is an ancient method of teaching, and students not paying attention is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps it’s the passive nature of the lecture which drives students to distraction rather than the device itself?
Sourced under Creative Commons license from The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

Students that are interested and engaged in the lecture material are less likely to drift off, whether it’s by doodling on their notepads or checking their Facebook feed. What these powerful tools in students’ backpacks and pockets offer is the potential to go beyond passive note-taking, and in to active, connective learning.  Therefore, instead of banishing laptops and devices from lecture theatres, lecturers could think about using their students’ connectedness to their advantage, by getting students to use laptops and other devices to better interact with course materials and play around with concepts, rather than passively absorb what the lecturer says over a period of several hours.


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(1) Mueller, P.A., Oppenheimer, D.M. 2014. The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard. Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science 23;25(6): Pp. 1159-1168

(2) Williams, J., 2006. The Lectopia service and students with disabilities. In Proceedings of the 23rd annual ascilite conference: Who’s learning? Whose technology? Ascilite 2006. The University of Sydney. Sydney, pp. 881–884.

(3) Grussendorf, Sonja (2013) Device ownership, ‘BYOD’ & social media for learning. Centre for Learning Technology (CLT), The London School of Economics and Political Science, London.