Longhand vs. Laptop Note Taking—A Good Reason to Ban Laptops in Classrooms?

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Originally posted on May 2, 2014.

Many faculty fret over students’ in-class use of computers—ostensibly there for note taking, but often also used for distracting e-mail, messaging, and checking social media.  A soon-to-be-published study by Pam Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel Oppenheimer (UCLA) offers faculty an additional justification for asking students not to use computers.

In three experiments, they gave students either a laptop or a notebook and invited them to take notes on a lecture (a TED lecture in two of the studies).  Later, when they tested their memory for the lecture content, they found no difference in recall of factual information.  But taking notes in longhand, which required participants to summarize content in their own words, led to better performance on conceptual-application questions. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard” is the apt title for their article, to appear in Psychological Science.

“Participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes,” explained Mueller and Oppenheimer.  Better to synthesize and summarize, they conclude:  “laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

For one of my colleagues, this study, combined with the unwanted distractions of in-class computer use, inspires a new class policy:  for better learning, no computer use in class.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).