Turns Out Taking Notes On Your Laptop Is Working Against You

If you head into any lecture theatre or office meeting these days, you’re not likely to see too many notebooks and pens. Digital has taken over analogue in so many ways, but when it comes to jotting things down on your computer, is this the best way to remember what you’re hearing?

study conducted by Princeton’s Pam A. Mueller and UCLA’s Daniel M. Oppenheimer performed a number of tests to find out. The tests in question aimed to uncover whether or not people (in this case, students) were likely to absorb and retain information if they used a laptop to take notes in class instead of a paper and pen: ‘Is laptop note taking detrimental to overall conceptual understanding and retention of new information?’

The first study asked a bunch of Princeton University students to watch a series of Ted talks and “instructed [them] to use their usual classroom note-taking strategy,” which for some, involved a notebook and others, a computer. They then responded to both factual-recall questions and conceptual-application questions about what they had just seen.

The results? Those typing out their notes tended to make a lot more of them but in comparison to those taking long hand notes, they scored much lower on the conceptual questions – they didn’t retain that information in a meaningful way to be able relate it to concepts outside of what they had just written down. The reason was because of something called “verbatim transcription”, that is, writing things down exactly as they heard it.

Is it the style of note-taking, or the use of a laptop?

To put the idea that it might be how notes are being taken to the test, they did a second experiment. The researchers asked participants using laptops to take notes without transcribing the lecture verbatim. They advised students to “take notes in your own words and [not] just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying.” You know, maybe it had nothing to do with the laptop.


The results proved similar to the first test. “The overall relationship between verbatim content and negative performance [still] held,” said the researchers. Turns out, even if laptop note takers were asked not to transcribe and take down notes in their own words, they wound up transcribing anyway.

But those extra notes are beneficial for studying later, right?

Well, they did a third experiment on this very question. Participants “were given either a laptop or pen and paper to take notes on a lecture,” and “were told that they would be returning the following week to be tested on the material.” A week later, they were given 10 minutes to study their notes before being tested.

And again, the longhand note takers were on top – this time for both conceptual and factual questions. It didn’t matter that the laptop note takers took down way more notes, because it seems laptops create a predisposition to record what you hear, instead of understand it.

If you want to really remember something, use a pen and paper

It seems that using laptops or other digital devices ensures more information is taken down, but is it really worth it if that information isn’t retained? The key is in actually listening and computing the information you’re being shown or told, and then creating notes. “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,” said Mueller and Oppenheimer.

Looks like a simple case of quality over quantity, as ultimately, taking notes on a computer isn’t as effective as writing them down with a good old pen and paper. Consider grabbing a notebook instead of your Macbook next time you walk into a lecture hall or meeting.

[h/t Harvard Business Review]