Study Shows Pen, Paper Note-taking Aids Conceptual Learning  


A University of Kansas professor banned keyboard-based note taking in her classroom hoping to have her students be more actively engaged in her lectures and gain new knowledge. For the communications professor, Carol E. Holstead, the experiment confirmed her hypothesis that students are less distracted when taking long-hand notes:

“Roughly 86 percent of the 95 students who responded said they felt they paid the same or better attention in the class without a laptop in front of them. About 52 percent said they paid more attention,” Holstead writes in a piece in The Chronicle.

Holstead’s theory is reinforced by several other studies. In 2014, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer conducted an experiment which yielded the same findings: that students learn more and better when they take notes by hand instead of through a technological device. Mueller and Oppenheimer were surprised by the results. Their study showed that:

“[W]hereas 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.”

When taking notes by hand, a different mode of cognitive processing is at play. Students tend to transcribe lectures when using a laptop but when they’re using pen and paper they simultaneously process and restructure the information based on their understanding of it. In short, a more complex processing is at work.

As expected, the Mueller-Oppenheimer study revealed that in terms of quantity, those taking notes on keyboard-based devices took more notes. However, those who took notes with pen and paper had a better conceptual understanding of the material presented.

The notion of technology as a distraction is supported by many, including Dr. Vincent Mulrooney, former educational psychologist of the Irish Department of Education.

Dr. Mulrooney contends that even though laptops and technology in general are popular, there’s always the hazard of  technology doing students more harm than good, Brian Boyd of the Irish Times writes.

Dr. Mulrooney asserts that students taking notes longhand are more keen and used to critically processing information by editing and summarizing what’s been taught.

A survey by the Students Enrichment Services in Ireland shows that at least half of the Irish secondary education students who use tablets and iPads during a class believe that these devices impede their learning rather than adding to it. An even higher percentage of the surveyed students, 73%, said they prefer textbook studying to tablet studying.

University College of Dublin Vice Principal Carmel Hensey argues that taking notes on tablets and laptops doesn’t put students at a disadvantage, but instead promotes active learning,

“In UCD we use an online system (Blackboard) to manage and deliver course content to students; they typically have access to PowerPoint slides, supporting documentation, papers from the primary literature, laboratory protocols, in advance of class. With information so accessible. . .  the nature of education is changing and there’s an increased emphasis on active learning and engaging students during class.”

For Hensey, technology offers priceless value to students by supporting them throughout their academic life from lecture attending to exam taking:

“I think there will be somewhat of a reversion to students making their own handwritten annotations to lecture material and students will be better able to recreate the context of the lecture with apps.“