Where do you turn when you need to take notes? Do you whip out a notebook and scrawl it down by hand? Or do you whip out your laptop and hammer out notes the modern way with your keyboard? Both avowed Luddites and digital natives have found support in the academic debate about the most effective ways to record and retain information.
According to popular wisdom, the mechanical process of transcribing information manually has the upper hand. In this just-so analysis, the interplay between the physical and mental tasks required to put pen to paper and record a thought creates a more lasting impression on the brain. Just as the point of a pen leaves a mark on the sheet below, the task itself inscribes a particular piece of information into our grey matter in a way that keystrokes simply don’t.
There is something to this notion — formally known as the encoding hypothesis. Indeed, a 2020 brain monitoring investigation found that when subjects were asked to write or draw a word by hand, activity in areas of the brain involved in visual and language processing was synchronized, which is thought to be crucial in the formation of memory. Activity in those brain regions was desynchronized when subjects typed the words, indicating that they might not be encoding the information, at least not in the same way.
But a range of other studies has shown that it’s far more complicated than that. The type of information we’re recording and the ways in which we are expected to recall it both have an impact.
Perhaps the most prominent study on the efficacy of manual versus digital note-taking was published in Psychological Science in 2014. The authors found that while notetakers using computers took more notes on a given lecture and that their notes were more likely to be verbatim transcriptions, they were less able to synthesize complex concepts when they were later tested on the content. In one of the experiments, they also performed worse on factual questions, even when given the opportunity to study their notes prior to the test. This was true even when they were explicitly instructed to avoid verbatim note-taking, which ostensibly would have encouraged them to summarize and thereby encode the information.
The findings thus called into question the competing external-storage hypothesis, which suggests that the greater volume of notes taken by computer users might allow them to more thoroughly review the content and encode it later. Other studies have attributed the lower efficacy of typed notes to the array of distractions available on a laptop and to the shallower processing required to enter information verbatim rather than summarize it on paper. A number of investigations have shown that classrooms allowing laptop use see diminished grade performance and those that ban them see improved grade performance. And a 2012 Pew Research report noted that nearly 90% of teachers perceived technology as a factor in creating shorter attention spans.
So hand-written notes it is then? Not so fast. A 2019 replication of the 2014 study suggests that the disparity in retention between the two note-taking methods is not nearly so stark. While several experiments showed slight advantages to manual note-taking, the authors did not consider them statistically significant. Both factual and conceptual performance were roughly equivalent between both groups. And a 2012 study found that students who transcribed lectures on their computers actually had better immediate recall than those who wrote their notes on paper. Additionally, the authors discovered that direct transcription resulted in greater recall than organized note-taking—contradicting the idea that synthesizing information as it is presented results in superior retention.
Other attempts to qualify the two approaches have also called the encoding hypothesis into question. A 2016 study found that when students were asked to transcribe a series of letters and sentences either by hand or by typing them, recall was better among computer users but recognition was better among the handwriting cohort. That is: Reciting rote information was easier for those who typed their notes but accurately identifying the same information when it was again presented was easier for those who wrote them. Another study from the same year found that hand-writing notes resulted in better recall. Students who use pen and paper are also more likely to replicate images and diagrams in their notes, simply because it’s easier to do using that method. Doing so results in a more comprehensive understanding of the content.
Ultimately, we don’t know which approach is superior. And, as both students and adults move away from manual note-taking and adopt entirely digital strategies, it may be a moot point. Perhaps the better question is how exactly we might optimize computer note-taking. Some have suggested that using a stylus to write on specialized tablets might bridge the gap. Wide-scale adoption of that approach, however, seems unlikely.
It’s worth noting that much of the research on this subject has been conducted in educational environments. These intense periods of study are unique in most of our lives — we may have occasional seminars, meetings, and training sessions, but they probably don’t match the intensity of information absorption expected of us during our schooling years. This is reflected in the percentage of college students who report taking notes during class: Some 96%. Can we say the same of the information we ingest day-to-day in our personal professional lives? Probably not. And of course, our minds change as we grow older; they become less malleable, less receptive to new ideas. Still, this array of seemingly contradictory findings indicates the complexity of the means by which our brains process and integrate new facts and ideas. And they probably apply, if not exactly, to how we continue to learn throughout our lives.
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