A few months ago, the Internet buzzed with the results of a study comparing students’ note-taking on computers versus note-taking with paper and pen. In the article, authors Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer shared the results of three experiments comparing these two note-taking conditions, and their conclusion was signaled in the title: “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard.”
Following the authors’ lead, most media reports treated these results as proof that using laptops for note-taking — or, some argued, any classroom use — was detrimental to learning. However, I think the results point in a different direction, suggesting that students do not need to be restricted from using laptops — or any other learning tool — in the classroom. Rather, the research underscores the need digital literacy instruction; that is, how to use their tools in a way that serves their learning goals.
To understand how the conclusions of this research have been misrepresented, we first have to understand the studies themselves. The article contains the results of three experiments. The first asked the students to take notes on five different TED talks on Youtube, either with a laptop or via pen and paper. They were then taken to another room where they engaged in activities intended to distract them. After about 30 minutes, the students were quizzed on the content of the videos, and the authors found that students who took notes longhand tended to do better on the quizzes — slightly better when asked to recall factual information and significantly better when answering conceptual questions that asked them to apply the information they had learned.
Mueller and Oppenheimer discovered something else: students who took notes with laptops took a lot more notes. In fact, where students taking notes longhand would summarize and synthesize the information in the lectures, students using the laptops were more likely to transcribe the videos more or less word-for-word. Although taking more notes generally improves the effectiveness of note-taking, it turns out that the literature on note-taking suggests that verbatim transcription is characteristic of “relatively shallow cognitive processing” when compared to synthesis and summarization (p. 1160).
Thinking this verbatim note-taking might have skewed their results, the authors attempted to control for it in a second experiment. This time, they asked the students using laptops to take notes like they would in class, but warned them of the dangers of verbatim transcription and requested that they try to avoid it. Despite this warning, the results of this second study were roughly the same: students using laptops took more notes than those writing longhand and they scored worse on the following quizzes.
Of course, people generally do not take notes expecting that this activity alone will help them remember. Rather, they take notes as a study aid, ostensibly to review those notes later in preparation for testing. Recognizing this, Mueller and Oppenheimer designed a third experiment.
This time, they followed roughly the same note-taking procedure — students took notes on videos with either a laptop or pen and paper — but, they were told they would be quizzed on the content one week later. When students returned to take the quiz, some were given 10 minutes to review their notes before being tested, while others were simply tested.
As in the previous two experiments, students who used laptops took more notes but scored worse on the tests. Interestingly, laptop students who were given the opportunity to study their notes generally did worse on the test than those who were not given this opportunity, while studying had the opposite effect for the pen and paper note-takers.
What Does it Mean?
Reports on Mueller and Oppenheimer’s work tended to champion hand-written notes over the use of laptops. The typical summation was something like this:
“Beyond ‘altering students’ cognitive processes and thereby reducing learning, laptops pose other threats’ in the classroom… the research by Mueller and Oppenheimer serves as a reminder, however, that even when technology allows us to do more in less time, it does not always foster learning. Learning involves more than the receipt and the regurgitation of information. If we want students to synthesize material, draw inferences, see new connections, evaluate evidence, and apply concepts in novel situations, we need to encourage the deep, effortful cognitive processes that underlie these abilities. When it comes to taking notes, ‘students need fewer gigs, more brain power.’ “
This result was supported by the study’s authors, who concluded:
“Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, ‘if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop’ than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, 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.’ (p. 1166)”
Or, as Robinson Meyer put it in The Atlantic:
“For some tasks, it seems, handwriting’s just better.”
Not So Fast
As the narrative above indicates, these conclusions are not supported by the research.
What Mueller and Oppenheimer discovered in their experiments is that laptop use correlates strongly with taking verbatim notes, and, as was already known, verbatim note-taking is well-known to be less effective than note-taking that synthesizes and summarizes content. However, both the authors of the study and media reports argue that these results are somehow determined by the use of laptops.
To support this claim, some media reports latched on to the second study, where laptop note-takers were warned about the danger of verbatim note-taking but tended to take verbatim notes anyway. As Meyer stated, “you can’t successfully warn someone to keep them from taking verbatim notes if they’re using a laptop.”
This is nonsense.
Students can use laptops to summarize and synthesize content in their notes. They can also use pen and paper to more-or-less transcribe content that they hear. (An anecdote: my mother learned shorthand when she was in high school, and on many occasions, I have seen her take verbatim notes using pen and paper.)
Aside from insulting these students, claims like Meyer’s are not clearly supported by the study itself. In fact, there was some confusion in the instructions Mueller and Oppenheimer gave to the laptop note-takers. Meyer reports that the researchers told students prior to the second study
“People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.”
Unfortunately, this quote cuts off another request in the instructions. Here are the actual instructions as recorded in the study on p. 1162:
“We’re doing a study about how information is conveyed in the classroom. We’d like you to take notes on a lecture, just like you would in class. People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.”
Prior to instructing students to avoid verbatim transcription, they were instructed to “take notes… just like you would in class.”
It is entirely possible that the subjects in the study were accustomed to taking verbatim notes on their laptops and either continued to do so because they were told to or were unable to develop an entirely different note-taking practice on the fly for this experiment.
Students Require Digital Literacy Instruction
Laptops do not make students take notes in a particular way. Rather, they are tools that enable a wide range of note-taking practices, including both summary and synthesis as well as verbatim transcription. Like any other tool, however, students need to be trained how to use them effectively. As this study suggests, when students are not provided this training, they may develop habits that may not be beneficial to their learning.
It is our job as instructors to identify beneficial habits and teach students how (and when) to apply them. That we do not do so is not a failure of laptops or students, but a failure of their education in an increasingly digital society.
I am not criticizing Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research, only the implications they draw from it. The correlation between laptop use and verbatim note taking is incredibly useful information for it allows educators to address how students use their tools. It certainly does not suggest that laptops are “harm[ful]” or should be restricted. The “pen” is not “mightier than the keyboard.”
Rather, it demonstrates the need for explicit instruction in how to most effectively take notes, either by pen or laptop. In other words, it points to the need for digital literacy instruction. Indeed, because text can be input into laptops faster than by hand, these tools actually provide a potential benefit to note-takers: the ability to take more notes. This feature of laptops, combined with instruction in how to take notes, could make these tools more effective than pen and paper for learning, not less.
The more attention we pay to our tools, the better. If my mother’s shorthand transcriptions of information were less effective for some purposes — remembering what she heard without reference to her notes — that would be useful to know so that she could tailor her practices to the situation more efficiently. The same goes for taking notes on the computer; if students are in a situation where they need to take interpretive, summary notes, they need to be taught how (and why and when) to do so. Which is why digital literacy should be a crucial part of their learning processes.
Banner image credit: Tulane Publications