Why you should take notes by hand — not on a laptop

Vox reports on a study comparing taking notes by hand versus using a laptop

For the first study, the students watched a 15-minute TED talk and took notes on it, then took a test on it half an hour afterward. Some of the test questions were straightforward, asking for a particular figure or fact, while others were conceptual, and asked students to compare or analyze ideas.

The two groups of students — laptop users and hand-writers — did pretty similarly on the factual questions. But the laptop users did significantly worse on the conceptual ones:


The problem appears to be that the laptop turns students into stenographers, people who write down everything they hear as quickly as they can. Students who take handwritten notes, however, try to process the material as they are writing it down so that they only have to write down the key ideas. Forcing the brain to extract the most vital information is actually when the learning happens.

The laptops resulted in worse learning even under the study conditions when they were actually used to take notes. In the real world, the laptops are a tempting distraction. I am reminded of the day my son came to my class. He sat in the back and afterwards he said “Dad, I can see why you are so interested in online education. Half of your students are online during your class already.”


How would the results change if the test were a month later instead of 30 mins? The value of the laptop is that you can get more stuff down, so once the memory of the lecture has worn off you have good study material.

That's why I recommend to students that they take in-class notes by hand, then type them up as soon as possible afterward.

They also studied that question. The "better" notes taken on the laptop didn't help students one week later. The handwritten part is key. Nylund's suggestion is a good one, it's what I do.

I had great luck in high school biology taking notes by hand and then composing them into study guides on my Apple II.

If you need to memorize facts, check out Anki.

Or maybe the professor could just post the lecture notes online, sparing the work?

(Hidden bonus: also spares students from wasting time by going to lecture!)

This is the best option. Alternatively, closely follow a good textbook and remark on which sections were covered during lecture. I always did far, far better in courses where I could just pick up the textbook and teach myself rather than having to rely on someone's lecture abilities. (Special mention of PowerPoint lectures, which can all go die in a fire.)

My memory was that lectures were really to tell you what was going to be on the test. So the best thing was to note the topic, not every word said by the professor, and try to listen to his/her explanations. Then read up on the topic ahead of the exam, preferably in more than one text book and, most crucially, do the set problems on the topic. Best is if you can do a problem, then leave the topic and then do some more a few days later. Repetitive learning works best.

In the rare cases where there is not text book, and the professor won't provide his notes (for a copying fee) then designate one student to take the notes.

Of course this advice is useless to people who don't actually study for a test - which accounted for most of the losses in my ChemEng class. Which meant that only 1/3rd of us actually graduated.

I graduated from an Italian university and had MANY courses where the professor's lectures have no connection whatsoever with what was being tested on exam day. The only way to pass was to attend many times the exam, or buy someone else's study guide.

Graphs! Let's not forget graphs. A lot of economics, especially undergrad, uses graphs. Taking notes by hand is much superior in that regard.

The laptop gives the illusion of learning. I wasn't much for taking notes during lectures. Sure, I would list the highlights/concepts covered by the professor (you know they will be on the exam!), but not the details. I always read the material before the lecture. After the lecture, I would read it again and, to my amazement, I'd see things I didn't see the first time (now that I had the benefit of the lecture). And I'd read the material again and again during the semester, each time seeing things that I hadn't noticed before (now that I had the benefit of more lectures). It's a painstaking way to learn, what I called the building blocks method, but it worked for me. Of course, there were those in the class who seemed to learn everything with very little effort. This was especially true once I was in law school, which used the case method for learning the law (reading court opinions to learn what was predominantly common law rather than statutory law) and the Socratic method for teaching it. Then in the graduate tax program, we used the problem method (math!) for learning the law (the Code and Regulations) and the Socratic method for teaching it. I continued with my building blocks method even as the "smartest" students relied only on what were called hornbooks. How did they do it, and how did they not stumble over themselves when they were "it" (that Socratic method!)? Maybe they had laptops (in the 1970s?).

Ideally, students should not take any notes during class - only note questions to be asked at the end. The Instructor should provide a visual connection to the topics (static slides, etc) during the lecture/ explanation (which is the 'core' content portion connection to the visual cue). Upon leaving the class, the instructor should then provide a hand-out/ other access to the visual slides, in order, with the key points made during the lecture next to them (in addition to any external resources for further review). The student should review those slides and notes that night, noting any conceptual gaps they have. This should take less than 1/4 the length of the lecture. Any homework, assignments, further review, etc., based on the day's topic then should be done.

The contention of this study is that the actual act of formulating and writing down notes aids learning. If that is true, then notes provided by the lecturer won't have the same effect.

Reviewing the material later is certainly beneficial, but there is no need for that to replace notetaking in class, since one can do both.

The confluence of wrongness and confidence here is delightful. Carry on.

At least for me, the note taking process in itself (manually in those days) already helped to focus on what teachers were saying, and to filter and emphasize important stuff from filler. In some way it also gave the confidence that I would have the important concepts in my own writing and it gave some permanent structure to the ephemerous words. In that sense, taking notes may even have worked better than just listening.

We also got course notes for most courses, these I used mainly to fill in the gaps in my own notes, or to correct some factual information, like equations etc. Usually I tool notes in the course book itself, or -even better- in a book of slides accompanying the course book.

Never took notes on a laptop, and apart from the obvious distraction, I highly doubt this would work for me.

Whatever happened to mind maps?


I'm curious about these results from a workplace perspective. I buy the general study results, but the benefits of typing notes are pretty overwhelming, in terms of time, searchability, editability and so on. Taking notes by hand and then typing them up afterwards works in principle, but in practice it's something one doesn't generally do after an 8-12 hour workday.

I'm curious whether there's a difference among laptop users who take sparing versus copious notes. I'd like to think so, since I take notes sporadically on important or easily forgettable points rather than trying to get everything down.

I also wonder where whiteboarding falls in this landscape. Personally, I find it invaluable for helping people understand processes and relationships in addition to specific data points.

From a work perspective, I think the process of capturing and assignment next steps ("action items") after a meeting is much more important than notes as such. At several of my jobs, everyone has been in the habit of snapping pictures of whiteboards and sending them around, which is ok but often means that the contents don't get reviewed or remixed like typed notes would be. Knowledge management is an unsolved problem!

I was addicted to whiteboards before I retired. Best way to brainstorm on a project and then outline the steps and other considerations. The problem was how to record the notes without some poor sap having to transcribe them. I did find a dedicated board to record and then a Mimeo board that worked well and saved the notes as a file. I could print them as handouts to all project participants. Taking a picture with phone, iPad, etc. will work in a pinch.

Related to the post is the effect of computers on arithmetic/mathematic work. I started as an actuary prior to the PC era and most of the calculations were done (and checked) by hand. There is something about writing out each part of a calculation that requires thinking about the details. When PCs (and primarily the spreadsheet program) took over, the ability to construct complicated calculations and vary the inputs with little extra effort, and print the results out greatly expanded the power of actuaries and their employers to do the work more quickly, at lower cost. I would not want to go back to the hand calculation era - I remember having to redo a complex calculation due to a mistake at an early stage - a major PITA with bottles of whiteout and paper to tape over places where the paper wore out due to erasure. The downside was that calculations could be developed with nonsensical results - the younger employees were good at programming, but lacked the basic feel to determine whether the results held up. I was one of those younger employees early in my career, and was often embarrassed by an older actuary who could readily spot a major error. I got to return the favor later on in my career.

I think the same blindness is a result of the automatic calculations that are so prevalent today, such as the cost at the register and the change due. I grew up in an era when students learned multiplication tables and I can do calculations in my head (at least roughly). That gives me a sanity check on the stuff that comes out of computers. Rote memorization seems so yesterday (as am I), but it helps create an agile mind.

End of tedious reminiscence by pre-eldery guy.

Being able to approximate, quickly and in one's head, is valuable for exactly the reasons that you state: to be able to detect flaws in the model or the calculations without having to go through it all. There is a time and place for careful bug detection but we can't do it all the time -- but we would like to know if there's a bug nonetheless. This requires understanding of the overall system, the wisdom to know what's more important vs what's less important, and the ability to quickly do approximate arithmetic in one's head.

Doesn't this suggest note taking is the problem, not the means of note taking. Just give the students the outline and then they can focus on engaging with the subject matter.

What about the students taking notes on the laptop that weren't making a transcript? There really seem to be two countervailing effects. One is that, for the same kind of notes, laptop notes are infinitely more useful. The other is that, by reducing the cost of taking transcript-like notes, they cause more students to choose that path.

When I was a law student, I always took notes by laptop. They were never a transcript. Instead I made an outline the night before based on the reading, then I adjusted it as necessary during class. That worked very well. And it would have been impossible with longhand notes.

Seems like your advice should not be what to take notes with, but what kind of notes to take.

True, but they also ran an experiment telling students not to write down everything and that didn't help--probably because students didn't listen or without being forced to process they didn't process. One can also tell students don't surf the web in class but that probably doesn't work either. Pen and pencil may be a discipline device--needed for most students.

I hear you, but the issue to me is that you are depriving some of a valuable tool because others cannot use it responsibly. Particularly with law students, err are taking about adults. If some want to waste their money, that's on them if we give them full information.

I would still like to see someone actually go and make a judgment about what kind of notes were actually taken (not just what they were told to take) and see how the results net out. Of course, would have to consider confounding variables.

Maybe they did this, but I don't have access to an undated version.

Were there differences in retention between fast and slow typists since the slow ones would presumably need to distill the material more? Of course this also introduces the possibility of a correlation between retention and typing speed.

Good point-they should have tested it.

As others have suggested, I email the students my lecture notes after each class and suggest that this will allow them to listen (and talk) more, and stenographer less.

When I was a student, well before the advent of laptops, I found the "take rough notes in class and then re-write later (and figure out what the heck the crazy old coot was talking about" worked well. I doubt taking notes by hand had much to do with it, however. With the availability of laptops, I have lost the ability to write by hand and now take meeting notes on a computer. I still take very rough note and go back later and flush them out as needed.

With the availability of laptops, I have lost the ability to write by hand

Oh my word, my hands ramps up after five minutes. Humans definitely atrophy!

I've had this problem during workplace training. I cannot have a computer in front of me, the temptations are too great.

Do any kids just video the lecture with their smartphone? Why type at all if you're just a sternographer? Easier review later?

I'm in law school right now in the middle of a Crim lecture. I can see why writing notes by hand helps with learning but law school specifically is a joke. Reading all the cases every night and taking detailed notes about them (or the lecture) is just a waste of time especially when the supplemental outlines (Emmanuel's, etc) have literally 90% of the main content in most of the classes and you can fill in the other 10% with outlines from kids from previous years. It is ridiculously inefficient afaict.

Based on my experience reading crap online is a better use of your time than paying attention in a law school lecture. Seminars can be more interesting as long as your fellow students are sharp. Won't do shit in terms of improving your ability to actually practice law though.

Do yourself a favor, stop going to class now and join a softball team or chase girls or do whatever makes you feel good. Start working eight weeks ahead of bar time. -Boalt '05

One solution might be for the instructor to provide class notes, AND for students to take handwritten notes. At a minimum, keeping the laptop closed makes it easier to resist the siren song of on-screen distractions.

Although I expect few students would take handwritten notes, even if shown the cognitive benefits of doing so. And in any case, many K-12 schools no longer teach cursive writing, and note taking with block printing is so painfully slow that I can't imagine anyone doing it. Is it time to re-assess the value of learning cursive?

I remember some professors handing out their class notes _before_ the class, so you could mark them up. In engineering, math, or physics, things were pretty visual and it helped to be able to write on a diagram or formula.

What about smart pens?

I was never much of a fan of sitting through lectures (reading is quicker and easier to customize what material needs repetition), but later in grad school when I got a laptop, I started regularly attending class. Not because the laptop enhanced my learning from the lecture (indeed, I frequently worked on other things during lecture or read ahead) - but to save time on homework problems, most of which were variations on problems worked out during the lecture. With the examples worked out during lecture already typed up, I could copy-paste these example solutions into my assignments and just change the parameters accordingly.

Re: Notebooks as distraction

I absolutely cannot understand why we would expect students to have sufficient discipline to spend the significant energy to learn new stuff while often *requiring* that they are accompanied by their primary means of entertainment and communication with friends.

It's akin to insisting that dieters fast next to a fully-stocked kitchen, with cookies in the oven.

Sorry for the rant, but my son's high-school has a mandatory laptop program and my gears still grind at the idea of paying money to, in all likelihood, decrease academic outcomes, to say nothing of the opportunity cost of that money spent elsewhere on education.

My kids' school has laptops for all students. They manage to put on software to control recreational use. It is not that hard.

Which the kids circumvent, which the administration patches, which the kids get around, which the administration...

My opinion, which was formed 30 years ago in university when they tried to restrict shell access to the Vax system for 1st years, was that clever students with unlimited time beat bored adults with multiple responsibilities every time.

On the other hand, the whole exercise made one of my kids a sort-of Windows expert on subverting badly written security software. I'd have preferred that he'd spent the time on more academic pursuits, but I supposed he learned some logic and reasoning there (as well as when to step back and let the less knowledgeable but more boastful students have their time in sun - about 30 minutes before the next administration clampdown.)


Yeah, I, too, am puzzled by that.

I was pretty much the only person who took notes by hand in law school (George Mason). Something just feels different in my brain when I write something by hand versus when I type. I did well but obviously there are confounding factors. My handwriting is pretty illegible to anyone else though, which made my outlines useless to others.

My note-taking by hand is always of poor handwriting and very disorganized, making it impractical to study afterwards, so the only reason I'd ever take notes by hand is to tell my brain to mark something is important, as I'd most likely never look at what I wrote down ever again. Very different with stenography/keyboard-based transcription, which is at least searchable, readable, and much easier to study off of. Though I paid less attention to the meaning of the content while transcribing by keyboard.

To study I would go through and organize the notes into an outline- by hand. The only problem was searching for a certain word/topic, occasionally- where typing up the notes would have helped. But not nearly worth the time involved. I was pretty good at filtering out what was important, so my notes weren't that long.

Variations of this result have been reported for decades - the "write concepts not a transcript" advice w.r.t. note taking was given to me on entering college. In 1978.

As for distractions - how many come from the laptop, and how many from it being connected to the web?

And we still haven't seen the answer to why a laptop can't be as effective as paper notes - is it of the nature of handwriting? in which case will a stylus on pad do as well? is the nature of student behavoir? Some educational artifact that will change in the next 20 years?

Side note - in the age of linking stuff up on the web, I still find it helpful to type notes/commentary/summaries about things. Presumably that's a related thing (my typing it helps me process and remember it.) And I've found it means that tools that auto-enter data (evernote), auto-capitalize or format (onenote or word) have to be restrained or abandoned - I need to be able to just type it as I type it.

I think it's because handwriting takes longer, thus giving you more time to think about what is being said. Also, the limited time combined with the slow speed of handwriting forces one to summarize and synthesize concepts, which one does not need to do while transcribing by keyboard (which, BTW, is far more efficient for studying).

I think (at least for me) that the physical nature of forming the letters is different than typing and leaves my brain with a stronger impression of what I've just written.

Hmmm. Fair point, but my handwriting was illegible even to me even in the 1970s - so now one has to ask whether taking notes that utterly meaningless squiggles has value?

The note-taking medium was treated as a fixed effect, while the lectures were treated as random effects. I'd say this is a strong assumption.

As some others have noted above, they failed to compare with not taking notes at all.

I never took notes in class. It's usually wasn't a problem, since the material was in the textbook in any case. When there was no textbook, I got to practice research skills looking in the library. When you don't take notes, you actually have time to listen and think.

Taking notes in lectures is, however, a good idea if you live in the 14th century and want to end up with your own hand-written book at the end, seeing as how buying a book handwritten by someone else would be very expensive.

Or if, for some reason, the prof tests you on a bunch of stuff only available from his/her oral and unrecorded lecture.

There's always memory for that. And how much of the test is really going to be on that material? And more importantly, how much of what you actually want to learn? I didn't find it a problem myself.

And remember, my contention is that you're learning the material better by actually listening and thinking. Even if that needs to be reinforced by reading the textbook afterwards, and some small proportion of the material isn't in the textbook, you may still come out ahead.

I only really started taking notes in law school, but my experience there was that you were better off going to lectures, taking good notes and not reading than reading everything and not going to class. The professors talked about what they wanted to hear in their exams during class, a lot.

"But the laptop users did significantly worse on the conceptual ones". Whoa! Looks like the error bars are overlapping so there is no statistically significant result here at all. We should assume these results are just chance.
(Article is gated so I can't check for sure.)

Why isn't every comment pointing this out?

Overlapping error bars does not necessarily indicate a lack of a significant difference. You need to use the 2-group t-test formula, which is different than than the "do the error bars overlap" test.

Formally, comparing X1 and X2 with standard errors SE1 and SE2, the error bars overlap when

But you will only fail a 2-group t-test when
(X1-X2)/(sqrt(SE1^2+SE2^2))<1.96, which is a different test.

It's possible to pass one but not the other.

For example, say X1=20 and SE1=2, while X2=10 and SE2=4.

Then the bars overlap: for X1 the confidence interval is about [16,24] while the one for X2 is [2,18].

But these pass a 2 group t-test because:
(X1-X2)/(sqrt(SE1^2+SE2^2)) = (20-10)/(sqrt(2^2+4^4)

neither laptop nor longhand is statistically significant, the error bars cross 0 for both.

Why discuss a paper you haven't read ? Especially as so often these social sciencey papers show no effect or a small effect with no randomization or a small effect due to p hacking or a small effect that is really noise. The resulting discussion is a combination of anecdote and mood affiliation.
People should spend some time at Andrew Gelman's blog.


That doesn't matter to the claim at hand, which is that "the laptop users did significantly worse on the conceptual [questions]", a claim that passes a t-test. It doesn't matter whether they are individually different from zero. All that matters for their claim is whether they can reject that the effects are the same.

With the standard caveat about the plural of 'anecdote' not being 'data', I have found this to be very much true in my own experience. What I discovered about my own learning was there was something unique about physically writing down the infromation being presented that didn't seem to work with typing. The really odd (at least I thought it was odd when I noticed it) was that there was a certain 'only rains when you don't bring an umbrella' phenomenon- in theory, the note taking was for the purpose of reviewing the material later, but I discovered that when I actually took notes I very rarely needed to actually review them to feel prepared, whereas when I didn't take notes I was much more likely to feel the need to borrow someone else's to review. Was it selective memory (rain/umbrella) or something real? Interesting to see that there's data suggesting the latter.

I even found it worth taking notes if, as I tried once as an experiment, I tore them up and threw them away afterwards.

Shorthand writing systems - writing notes in class using shorthand makes it possible to write down a ~lot~ more information. Some students might transcribe verbatim, but that's mostly for beginners whose minds are over-taxed by simultaneously listening to the lecture while trying to practice the shorthand system. In shorthand systems it is very standard to re-write the notes a little later both for legibility as well as clarity. So that's a second processing of the material. What I suspect is missing from these conversations is that it is generally easier to edit or re-write hand-written notes than to edit text files, so that the process of 'processing' the information a second time is more facilitated when the notes are written (either with or without using shorthand). I have this odd impression - shorthand ability among college and graduate students decreased rapidly in the 1960s and 70s.. academic stagnation in some fields seems to have set in around then... and I'm not entirely joking (although this is April 1st.) Did the propensity to take extensive, detailed, doubly-processed notes decline? (Minor note: I taught myself Gregg Shorthand in the 1990's while I was being paid for taking lecture notes for a student publication service.)

How long does it take to learn shorthand?

How long to learn shorthand? Traditionally, a long time. Two courses over two semesters or more. I taught myself starting with a list of the 500 most frequent words. Worked them into my note-taking every lecture doing brief drills before and after each lecture. Started with 'and', 'the', and so on . After a couple of months at 10 hours a week of lectures and another 10 of reading, transcribing, typing .. I was getting considerable benefit. Found some cassette tapes about a year into it and tested myself as being at around 120 words per minute. Like a lot of similar skills (e.g. touch-typing) the mistake most people trying to learn on their own seem to make is not doing it intensely enough over a consistent period of practice.

Do you think that your headline is ethically supportable and not the result of blameworthy bias? Even in the "social sciences?" There is nobody reading your blog that "should" take notes on a laptop, based on your reading of this study?

Better on conceptual questions = spent more time on average figuring out what tickles the professor.

Are tried used a tablet?

Being in college in the early 70's, notes were all handwritten. The one exception I had to make was US-history-to-1865, taught by a guy with a huge passion for the 1700's - he dressed like a Victorian, and knew every name, number and event there was - and put them on his tests. So I started bringing a small portable cassette recorder to class, then would transcribe the lectures on a Royal typewriter that evening. I passed the class, but didn't get much understanding either listening, typing or re-reading.

odd that you've got so many people who presumably believe in evolution not being particularly receptive to the notion that the physical act of writing words, rather than the more abstract typing of same, adds value. while we're good at abstraction, there are all sorts of studies about the benefits of physicality (e.g., taking notes in margin of book is very different from taking same notes in separate document, or laying things out on a desk to organize, etc.).

(fwiw, i always took notes by hand, but broke the rules by writing almost everything that was said, adding questions to self along the way, and found this provided very good recall of all that transpired in class (like many of the commenters, an objectively successful student, even if perhaps an idiot in other respects).)

That all depends on how good your handwriting is. Sometimes, often times, I can't really read my own notes.

This could be irrelevant eventually. Lecturing tends to be one of the least engaging and least effective types of teaching.

Other methods of teaching would probably be even more effective than hand writing notes.

The best students in my chemistry classes don't take any notes. But they listen carefully, and respond to questions I give them in class.

This is the exact reason why I bought a Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, one of the few tablets with an active digitizer that comes very close to recreating pen & paper. I use it only for notes and brainstorming and I couldn't be more pleased. Why people, especially students/academics, buy iPads or other devices without digitizers I will never understand.

I'll even go one step further -- I will occasionally take handwritten notes of a paper or textbook section that I want to understand really well. I find that physically writing things out and making sure that I understand each step helps me to avoid glossing over the details. As other people have said, you can throw the notes in the trash afterwards if you want.

This discussion is what we in med school call "low yield."

If you want to memorize something, there are two important factors that have been proven to work:

1) Testing effect http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Testing_effect

2) Spaced Repetition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition

Hand writing versus computer...who cares? All these studies produce small effects that pale in comparison to "testing" and "spaced repetition". These are the key to long term learning and retrieval..

I wonder what the outcome would be if all the students had training in note taking beforehand. I do suspect that the handwritten notes would still prevail with the best performance by those students who immediately organized their notes after the class. It is funny how these scenarios are used in TV and movies. I remember one show where a disgraced investment guru was to teach a class at the local college. The "joke" was as he spoke, the keyboards rattled, when he stopped, they stopped. But best of all was an '80s movie, 'Real Genius' in a montage showing the kid going to a large lecture hall class. Each time with more and more cassette recorders on seats instead of students until finally he walks into a lecture hall filled with cassettes on desks and a reel-to-reel playing on the table at the front. My understanding, via the Tumblr "You Suck, Sir", is the new and improved note taking is a photo on their phone.

It is the training in note taking that seems to be lost. I found a book from 1919, 'Freshman Rhetoric" by Slater that had very good advice on the topic, but even that was removed in the edition of the book that has now been reprinted for Amazon. A cursory look around the web on note taking and how to study is really thin on actual instruction. I did take what I read in Slater's book and applied it to note taking on a book I was reading. I didn't keep it up, but I did find when I went back to my notes, they did spark more memory than the "note taking" I had done all through school. The method was basically devolving the lecture/text back into an outline. Easier with some lecturers and texts than others due to the originators organization but worth the effort if the goal is to depend less on mental gifts and have a method to go beyond innate cognitive ability. We all, eventually, reach material we need tools to punch through, when innate ability just isn't enough.

What is the best method of reading skull bumps?

I would be interested in a similar study comparing physician performance using an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) with a keyboard & monitor versus a traditional paper chart and a pen. EMRs are being shoved down the throats of US physicians but the Obama administration with little prior study of their clinical effectiveness.

Try the Rocketbook. (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/rocketbook-cloud-integrated-microwavable-notebook)

I think it's the best solution. Only thing it needs is an OCR and Dadaaa! you have all the benefits of hand notes and laptop ones combined...!

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