Note taking: Is typing or handwriting better?

Travis Dixon Cognitive Psychology, IB Psychology HL Extensions, Revision and Exam Preparation

Don't let your confirmation bias affect your interpretation of the research in this blog!

IB students are the iGen, so you probably can’t imagine working without a laptop. This begs the question – is it better to take notes by hand on paper or typing on a laptop? Let’s review the research.

Let’s first look at Mueller and Oppenheimer’s now famous study “the pen is mightier than the keypad:”

In this quasi-experiment, 67 students from Princeton University participated and were asked to take notes on a lecture. The students were told to take notes how they normally would (typing on a laptop or by writing notes by hand). Afterwards, they were given a test on the content of the lecture. The results showed that there was not much difference in remembering facts from the lectures. However, there was a significant difference in test scores based on conceptual understanding (comprehending the meaning and significance of the facts) – those that wrote notes by hand had better scores on these questions. This suggests that using technology to take notes might affect our ability to remember and understand important ideas about what we are learning.

Notes have two functions – an encoding function and a storing function. The encoding function of notes is that in the act of note-taking, you’re going to process the information more deeply and this helps you to retain it. The encoding hypothesis can explain the above results as Mueller and Oppenheimer note that this theory “…suggests that the processing that occurs during the act of note taking improves learning and retention.” When you type notes with a laptop you can probably type quite fast, so you might copy verbatim (word-for-word) what’s being said. However, when writing by hand you have to listen carefully for the key ideas and filter out the rest. This level of processing information will improve your memory of it.

The second function of notes is that they store the information for later revision. According to the external storage hypothesis, students who take good notes will do better in tests because they can use these notes to review. The positive effects of using notes as an external storage of information for later review “is robust and uncontroversial” (6).

Tip: This material can be used for the effects of technology on the reliability of cognitive processes, as reliability is “…the quality of being trustworthy or dependable” (Oxford Dictionary of Psychology). Therefore, studies on memory scores show how reliable one’s memory is.

The other simple explanation is that laptops have distractions. We come back to cognitive load. One study using classroom observations found that students using laptops in class were only on task 37% of the time (the rest of the time they were doing other things like using social media) (7). Other studies have found that students do better on final tests when laptops aren’t allowed in the classroom (8). Other studies have found direct effects of open tabs in browser windows and scores of attention and memory (9).

If you really want to know what’s happening in the mind it’s a good idea to investigate the brain. The differences in effects of encoding information on memory have been studied using fMRIs. Studies on children have investigated how handwriting vs. typing involves different areas of the brain. These studies show that handwriting connects more visual and motor networks in the brain (10). A recent study in Japan showed similar results.

Note taking and brain activity (Umejima et al., 2021): In this experiment, 48 Japanese college students read two fictional dialogues between people, one discussing personal matters and the other academic matters. The dialogues included mentions of numerous daily scheduled appointments. The participants had to take note of these appointments. They were then were randomly allocated to one of three conditions – writing the appointments in a paper notebook (i.e. a diary), a smartphone (a Google Nexus), or a tablet (an iPad). They were then placed in an fMRI and given a distraction task – listening to a Japanese story and then answering comprehension questions. Exactly one hour after they heard the initial dialogues, they were then given a memory test of the appointments. The results showed that even though the notebook group took less time to write the details of the appointments, their memory for easier questions was greater than the other groups. The fMRI results showed all participants had activity in their hippocampi and areas of their prefrontal cortices, but this activation was higher in the notebook group. These findings suggest technology used when encoding information (i.e. taking notes) can affect memory because of differences in brain activity during retrieval.

Umejima et al. argue that the improved memory in the notebook group could be caused by the use of real paper as it provides “more concrete encoding information” compared to technology like a tablet or phone where information on the same screen can be instantly erased. The actual process of writing it down on paper you can touch that can’t easily be erased creates deeper encoding, engaging the brain more deeply and thus creating a stronger memory of the information. They conclude that these findings are important in the world of e-learning as “…the expanded use of mobile devices or computers could undercut the use of traditional textbooks and paper notebooks, which may in fact provide richer information from the perspective of memory encoding.”

However, if you like taking notes on your laptop, perhaps it’s not all bad news. In a recent replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s original study, Morehead et al. (2019) asked the question “How Much Mightier is the Pen than the Keyboard for Note-Taking?” They believe that the conclusions of a superior note-taking method are premature for two reasons. Firstly, some recent studies have shown a laptop superiority effect which contradict the original study. However, these studies were not direct replications of the original. We cannot make bold conclusions about effects without first replicating findings to establish test-retest reliability. This is the second reason Morehead and her colleagues wanted to replicate the original.

How much mightier is the pen than the keypad? (Morehead et al., 2019):  The major aim of this study was to perform a direct replication of the original by Mueller and Oppenheimer. They followed the same methods, including using the same lectures and test questions. However, they added another two conditions – one group used eWriters for taking notes and another didn’t take notes. They also did an immediate (same day) test like the original but added another test two days later. Before this second test, students were given 7 minutes to study their notes. One set of results were reversed from the original – handwritten notes were better for factual information but there were no differences in conceptual information recall. There were also no differences across the three note-taking groups when they were allowed to review their notes. Their general conclusion is that while they found some evidence to support the original study, as to which note-taking method is the best, they “…argue that the available evidence does not provide a definitive answer to this question.”

Regardless of the technology involved, the key to effective studying is to engage your cognitive resources as much as possible on the task at hand and block out the rest. Figuring out how you can process the information deeply, making connections to your existing schema, and forming personal and relevant meaning from the content will give you a greater chance of remembering it. Perhaps then the goal isn’t to think about the test if you don’t really care about grades, but rather think about how you’re studying might be useful in real life.