A new study about taking hand-written notes should give students pause about using their computers.
In college I was a champion note-taker. By the time I reached midterms my freshman year, my friends started asking to borrow my notes, and by finals I was copying them on whiteboards in the common spaces for everyone to study from.
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Note-taking isn’t an innate talent or anything — it’s an art that you have to learn. Lucky for me, I had teachers in high school who knew how important that skill would be. They invested a significant amount of time in teaching us to identify important information in lectures and organize it into a coherent form. Most of us eventually developed some kind of shorthand in cases of fast-talkers, which was invaluable in college to denote tangential information that might still show up on the final.
According to NPR, it wasn’t just the fact that I was good at taking notes that helped me snag A’s my freshman year — the very act of taking notes by hand significantly improves student’s ability to learn.
In the study published in Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles sought to test how note-taking by hand or by computer affects learning. “When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can,” Mueller tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”
The type of note-taking students do on a laptop is fundamentally different than notes taken by hand. Because people can type faster than they can write, they tend to transcribe what they hear. This is called non-generative note-taking, and the instinct to use it while typing is so strong that students were unable to resist typing words verbatim even when researchers urged them not to. But the more words they copied, the worse the students performed on recall tests.
Conversely, the students who took notes by hand performed significantly better than their typing peers. Generative note-taking involves summarizing, paraphrasing, and concept-mapping, all of which require the student to rapidly process information in order to distill it to key points. The students who took notes this way not only performed better than non-generative note-takers on immediate recall tests, they also performed significantly better when both groups were given a period of time to study their notes, leading researchers to conclude that the process of generative note-taking aids in both comprehension and retention.
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I didn’t have the option of typing my notes during my first few years of college, but when laptops became ubiquitous I still preferred taking notes long-hand. I often found that during a test, I could visualize what I had written or even the place on the page I had written it much better than I could recall what my professor said. Because of this, I always insisted that I was simply a “visual learner.”
But after reading about this study, I don’t think it had anything to do with visual memory at all. I think the amount of time my high school teachers spent teaching us how to take notes made me adept at the process of generative note-taking, and that’s the reason I took better notes than my friends — and got better grades.
Even if you’ve never taken notes by hand in your life, you should start. Just don’t panic if you feel like you’re not copying down all the information — that’s not the point. You’re not supposed to copy it, you’re supposed to learn it. And generative note-taking is the best way to do that.