What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents: writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop? Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?
Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning. Why? Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories. Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact.
Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later. The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.
These results don’t surprise me. Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content. But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that. I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note. Multiple senses are involved: you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice. If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.
I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer. For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember. Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.