The Pen Is Mightier Than The Laptop For Students Trying To Memorize Their Study Material

By Rhonda J. Miller on May 4, 2014 2:23 PM EDT

Taking Notes With Pen and Paper Is Powerful
Students who takes notes with a pen and paper write fewer words but understand and remember lecture material better than students who use a laptop and take verbatim notes, a new study found. (Photo: Shutterstock / Rhonda J. Miller)

Students who take notes by writing with pen in hand remember and understand lecture material better than those who use a laptop, according to a new study by researchers at Princeton University and the University of California Los Angeles, Science reported.

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Less may be more meaningful when it comes to note-taking by hand, the researchers found. Students using pen and paper wrote 100 to 150 fewer words than those using a laptop, but tended to comprehend the content better because they reframed it according to their own understanding.

While one consideration is that laptop note-takers may remember less due to the diversions offered by surfing the web, that's not the key finding in the study led by Princeton psychology researcher Pam Mueller.

"Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended — and not for buying things on Amazon during class — they may still be harming academic performance," Mueller said in an article on the study by the Association for Psychological Science.

The study arose from Mueller's own experience of switching from a laptop to pen and paper as a graduate assistant and realizing she got more out of a lecture.

To find out about note-taking and memory for the study, 65 students watched one of five TED Talks on an interesting topic, but not one of common knowledge. Students were given either a laptop disconnected from the Internet or a notebook for writing by hand. They were questioned 30 minutes later on details such as "How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?"

The results were that the two groups performed equally well on factual questions, but the laptop users did worse on conceptual questions. Students who hand-wrote notes used fewer words, while the laptop users had more verbatim notes.

The findings suggest that writing by hand encouraged students to write more from comprehension, confirmed by better remembrance of the topics on a recall test one week later.

"The research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing," the resarchers reported in the April 23 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

"In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand," the researchers wrote. "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."

Writers often discuss whether writing by hand has advantages over doing initial drafts on the computer. One of those who discusses the topic extensively is Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way and many other books on uncovering individual creativity in all walks of life. One of Cameron's strategies for making that creative connection is through spontaneous writing of three pages in what she calls a "Morning Pages" journal.

"In the era of iPads and new technology at every turn, I am asked even more frequently if people really need to do their Morning Pages by hand. In short, the answer is yes," Cameron said on her website. "When we write by hand, we connect to ourselves. We may get speed and distance when we type, but we get a truer connection, to ourselves and our deepest thoughts, when we actually put pen to page."

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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