Note-Taking Tech

digital note takingOne of the most notable developments during the years I attended college (2002 – 2006) was the shift from desktop to laptop computers. The portability of the latter meant that personal computers could now be taken out of dorm rooms and into classrooms. This altered the learning experience for both students and teachers in a number of significant ways. In my freshman year, I remember one professor designating specific areas in his lecture hall for students who wanted to bring laptops. The rest of us, clinging to our pencils, were left straining to hear the professor over the clicking and clacking of keyboards.

Within two years, however, there were no more designated laptop areas because it was a given that all students would be coming to class with a computer. To facilitate this emerging inevitable trend, classrooms have since been redesigned to support digital technology. Electrical outlets for charging machines are embedded in most workspaces and wireless Internet is a given inside (and outside) all campus buildings. Today it can be assumed that students who attend class with nothing but a pencil and paper are from a bygone era.  One that uses words like “bygone.”

But perhaps this assumption underestimates the value of a pencil. In this final instalment of our series on college preparation in the digital age we will explore why coming to campus with your computer does not necessarily mean you should come to class without your pencil.

Can I bring a Laptop to Take Notes?

 Professor Alan Jacobs of Baylor University’s Honors College receives a number of student questions each year concerning his classroom expectations. On his homepage, Jacobs has provided typed responses (complete with hyperlinks) to those questions asked most frequently. Topping the list:

Is it okay if I bring my laptop to class to take notes?

To which Jacobs responds:

“No, sorry, not any more. Now that Baylor offers wireless internet access in most classrooms, the university has provided you with too many opportunities for distractions. Think I’m over-reacting? Think you’re a master of multitasking? You are not. No, I really mean it. How many times do I have to tell you? Notes taken by hand are almost always more useful than typed notes, because more thoughtful selectivity goes into them; plus there are multiple cognitive benefits to writing by hand. And people who use laptops in class see their grades decline — and even contribute to lowering the grades of other people. Also, as often as possible you should annotate your books. If this subject interests you, you may find more information and many more links to studies here.”

Before you write off Jacobs’ response as the ranting of a Luddite it should be mentioned that he is no slouch when it comes to computers. His online activities include active Tumblr and Twitter accounts, a blog for the New Atlantis, and a beautiful website called the Gospel of the Trees.

Jacobs, who fully embraces culture on- and off- line, realizes that the computer is a helpful, yet limited tool for students and teachers alike. Recent studies on cognitive development back up his point. In short, using a computer in the classroom is detrimental to the learning experience both in the external environment of distraction it creates and the internal habits of detached note taking it encourages.

1: Distraction and the Myth of Multitasking

I am sure that many of us were told by our parents not to study while watching television. Common sense told them that the two activities could not be done simultaneously. Either you missed key parts of the material you were reading, or you missed key parts of the show you were watching. Recent studies are indicating that the common sense of our parents is now buttressed with some hard facts about our cognitive development in the face of distraction.

In one study for instance, individuals divided into two groups were told to keep track of weather data and make predictions after set times. The first group operated in silence, while the second group operated in a room with a particular distraction: an intermittent high pitched tone. In addition to their primary task of weather prediction, they were asked to perform the secondary job of counting the number of tones. Neurological scans showed that those who were operating in an environment of distractions started to use a different area of their brain to complete the primary task. This area of the brain is often associated with habit formation.

Researchers noticed that this distracted group began to perform their job as a matter of habit, not giving full attention to the data. While their predictions during the first day were relatively close to the un-distracted group, they were not able to do complete the task in a follow up session. The reason for this is that the distraction affected their recollection of what the data represented for the task. The area of the brain that processes information had been turned off, so to speak, and they did not internalize the task, but rather performed an external habit to cope with the surrounding distraction.

According to Rene Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt Universtiy,

“The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. But a core limitation [of the brain] is an inability to concentrate on two things at once.”

No matter how hard we try to re-imagine our minds as machines, this study certainly illuminates our limits. Multitasking is a myth and if you have a laptop connected to the Internet in your classroom, you may be setting yourself up for failure.

Some experts recommend you remedy this by checking your email once every hour. If you are going to study with a computer, set up soothing background music, which aids in concentration. Obviously, avoid instant messaging, videos, and most other distractions found on the Internet. As David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan argues,

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

I am not an expert, but I would recommend a return to the common sense of our parents who were major proponents of the “Shut-the-TV-off!” approach to learning. But what if you want to use your computer only to type notes? It turns out that even typing may not be as beneficial to your education as good old-fashioned handwriting.

2. The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard

Confession. The title for this section is borrowed from an upcoming article in Pyschological Science. The authors are Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Pam Mueller, a graduate student at Princeton University, and they are publishing their findings on the outcome of student note taking methods.

In their study, students were given either a pen and paper or a computer with no Internet connection on which to transcribe a lecture. Thirty minutes after the lecture students were assessed on their retention of the material. The assessments covered factual knowledge (i.e. regurgitation) and conceptual knowledge (i.e. the application of knowledge to a unique question). What they discovered is that both groups scored relatively high on factual questions, but only the group using pen and paper scored well on conceptual questions. The report notes, “Verbatim note-taking, as opposed to more selective strategies, signals less encoding of content.”

Students who use computers are capable of copying down more of what they hear than those who use the pen, but in but they often do so with a higher degree of detachment. It is interesting to think that our education is affected not only by what we write, but in how we write it. According to Sanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the College de France in Paris,

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.”

Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, backs up this idea with her own study of children in grades two through five. What she discovered when comparing students engaged in printing, cursive writing, and/or typing on a keyboard were distinct brain patterns as well as distinct end products in each category. Summarizing her study in the New York Times, Maria Konninkova writes,

“When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory – and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”

There is not much to add to these findings. When it comes to the classroom, leave the laptop behind.

College Preparation in the Digital Age

If you are preparing for college, or preparing to send those kids off to college in the Fall, you might be wondering what tech you will need on campus. Undoubtedly, you are going to have your own computer. This is good. As we explored in the previous articles of this series, a computer is an incredibly valuable tool in academia. If used correctly, it can mine the depths of human information and assist you in the research process. And with the proper software, you can become more efficient in the organization and dissemination of that research.

While certain aspects of education have become easier with digital technology, it would be foolish to assume that the entire enterprise does not remain one of hard and disciplined work. Part of this discipline involves recognizing the limits of our machines, particularly when they enter the classroom. It also involves recognizing the distractions in our environment that might break our focus and inhibit learning. When this happens, pick up a pencil and paper and write because as Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, points out, “[The] very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important.”


Dayna Perez-Hernandez, “Taking Notes by Hand Benefits Recall, Researchers Find” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2014 

Maria Konninkova, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” New York Times, June 2, 2014

Peter Stevenson, “Distractions Make Learning Harder,” CBS News, July 24, 2006

Steve Lohr, “Slow Down Brave Multitasker, Don’t Read this in Public,” New York Times, 2007



2 thoughts on “Note-Taking Tech

  1. I graduated long before there were personal computers, much less laptops. But when I started seminary many years later I had classes where one or two people took notes on their laptops. They seemed eccentric. But within a couple of years everyone was doing it, the classrooms were redone to allow every student a plug and there was wireless internet access. At first I resisted and continued taking notes the old-fashioned way. But eventually I relented and went with the tide. It was rare to see a student taking notes who wasn’t also on facebook, ESPN or tweeting.

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