A Teacher's Reflection on Longhand vs. Laptop Note Taking Study

This summer I will be doing two things with my blog: 1) I will reflect on the previous school year - What worked? What didn't work? What do I want to modify? 2) I will move my favorite posts from my old blogging platform to Blogger. Today's post is a blog repost that focuses on why handwriting notes is still important in our technology-oriented society.

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May 4, 2014

If you haven’t read the Washington Post’s article Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes, then you should. Journalist Fred Barbash writes about Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer’s “study based on series of lab-based experiments comparing how much students learned after listening to the same lectures.”  According to the study, “handwriters learn better, hands down.” I am pretty sure that the pun was intended.

As a teacher who uses technology, the study conducted by Pam Mueller from Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer from UCLA intrigues me. I do not use technology simply because it is part of the hype. I have used technology throughout my fourteen year teaching career, and I truly believe that if my students are not learning as well as they should be, I must adjust my instruction accordingly.  As such, in response to the study, I must ask why did students who used longhand do better on tests? How does this affect our school district’s long anticipated 1:1 chromebook initiative? How should I adjust my instruction?

The original study, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: The Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, was published in Psychological Science on April 23, 2014 and summarized in Take notes by hand for better comprehension, published in Science Daily on April 24, 2014. The study questioned when distracting factors were removed from the equation, i.e. no internet access, did laptop note takers fair as well as longhand note takers?

To test this question, college students watched TED Talks and took notes either by hand or on laptop, completed a series distracter tasks, and then answered factual re-call questions and conceptual-application questions. As Science Daily reports, re-call question scores were equal for both groups; however, this was not the case for conceptual-application questions where students who took longhand notes did significantly better than laptop students.

This last statement is important because do we want our students to spout facts or apply/internalize those facts? This the difference between asking “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?” and “How did Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?” This is the difference between Depth of Knowledge Level 1 and Level 3. DOK establishes rigor. Therefore, laptop note takers did not experience a rigorous lesson.

What does this mean?

So, this means that students should take notes by hand??? I asked myself halfway through the article. According to the study, the answer is not that simple. Mueller and Oppenheimer wrote in their abstract "We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Since it is faster to type than handwrite, laptop students were writing their notes verbatim - they were not synthesizing the notes and making their information their own. Laptop users were not internalizing the information; thereby experiencing “shallower processing” (Mueller).  Even when laptop students were asked not to write notes verbatim, they could not stop this seemingly automatic response.

Applying the study information to my students

Now I understand part of the problem. A friend of mine who teaches science complained to me that some of her students had no problems copying notes for the science experiment (by hand), but when asked to perform the experiment, the students had no idea what to do. All they had done was mindlessly copy the information. There was no internalization of the information. By copying verbatim, the students had become robots instead of humans with the capacity for genius.

Now I also understand how I have hindered my students. I am sad to say that I have created lessons with complete definitions and examples on SMART Notebook and Powerpoint slides, which gave students the opportunity to mindlessly copy by hand or keyboard.

“Wait, Mrs. Scott! I haven’t finished writing my notes!”

“Put it in your own words,” I would retort as I waited, thereby wasting valuable instruction time.

“Just one more second!”

Thus, I must criticize my own lessons - the lessons did not contain the required engagement that nurtures my students’ capacity for genius; rather the “lessons” were busy work for robots. Fortunately for my students and I, the majority of our lessons do not function like this. The same is true for my science teacher friend and her students.

Initial Implications of Longhand vs. Typing Study

Back to the original topic regarding longhand vs. typing and the importance of note-taking methods. By coincidence, I taught an anti-plagiarism/anti-verbatim lesson this week. The chromebooks were being used for the SBAC Field Test by another class, so I printed out research materials for my various classes - ELD, on-grade level, and Honors. (My students are researching scientists before writing explanatory, argumentative, and narrative pieces to present to the class). My students hated the note-taking assignment because I required that they read one paragraph multiple times, turn the paper over, and write the important information that they remembered - no copying allowed. I modeled notes in Google Drive that projected on the board, but my notes were simply lists of what I remembered - not verbatim. I then re-read the paragraph to add to those notes. Students must be taught how to take notes with fewer words. Copy/paste is not their friend.

I know that my note taking lesson last week is not the only method to teaching this important skill nor the best, but it is a start. I am just happy I started it before I even read about The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: The Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking study.

Further Implications

Until further research is conducted, I am not taking chances with my students’ capacity for genius; my students are too important to me. Students will take notes by hand, but will pre-write, edit, and revise their multiple writing assignments on the chromebooks and 8 desktops computers using Google Drive. I will also continue give direct instruction on how to take effective notes.  As students master this type of note taking, we may move from longhand to typing. I will not allow my students to have a shallow learning experience.


This study of 327 college students will not stop me from using technology in my classroom. I look forward and applaud my district’s move to 1:1 for English and math classes; however, I will make sure that my students are engaging in rigorous activities using both pen and keyboard. Until further research is done, my classroom will not be entirely paperless.

I thank psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer for conducting this study and challenging me to become a better teacher. I also thank journalist Fred Barbash from the Washington Post, the Science Daily, and Twitter for sharing the study with me. Good teachers do not instruct based on their biases; they instruct based on well-researched best practices and hard-earned experience. Above all, I am grateful for Mueller’s conclusion:

"Ultimately, the take-home message is that people should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy” (Science Daily).

What are your thoughts on this study? Contact me on twitter @jentechnology.


Association for Psychological Science. "Take notes by hand for better long-term 
comprehension." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 April 2014. Web. 04 May 2014.

Barbash, Fred. "Why Students Using Laptops Learn Less in Class Even When They Really Are 
Taking Notes." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 27 Apr. 2014. Web. 04 May 2014.

P. A. Mueller, D. M. Oppenheimer. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of 
Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581


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