It seems there’s an app for everything these days. Students aren’t given textbooks and binders full of blank, lined paper for school anymore. Now they get an electronic tablet on which they download a digital version of their subject textbook. They take notes by typing into a word processing app. It sounds like a very tech-savvy, efficient way of educating children.
So why does the U.S. continue to lag behind other countries in math, science and literacy?
Keyboard vs. Pen and Paper
Most college students have some sort of electronic device for note-taking. They would probably put up quite a fight if you tried to take it away from them. They’ll argue that typing is faster than writing in longhand and it produces crisp, clear notes for study later.
On the face of it, this may seem like a valid argument, but when actually compared to taking notes the old-fashioned way, by putting pen to paper, some interesting results show up. It seems that students who handwrite their notes are listening to the lecturer/teacher and engaging with the information to transform it into condensed, paraphrased “nuggets.”
Those typing were transcribing the lecture, mostly verbatim, producing copious amounts of notes but very little higher order cognitive interaction was happening. In short, those typing were mindlessly transcribing the lecture without engaging with the information in any way.
Studies have shown that taking notes by putting pen to paper improves performance on conceptual as well as factual testing. The conclusion is that note taking through mindless, verbatim transcription may ultimately result in less learning.
Benefits of Handwriting Notes
Multiple studies have been done on note-taking via laptop versus handwritten notes. The conclusions have shown that when laptops alone are the means of taking notes, they may be contributing to learning impairment.
“Handwriting in the 21st Century ,” a white paper presented in winter 2012 at an educational summit, concluded that shifting the focus of teaching from handwriting to keyboarding deprived students of the benefits of handwriting notes. These benefits include:
- An increase in brain engagement and activation of learning centers
- An equal impact on learning retention and performance across all academic subjects
- Handwriting notes functions as a foundation for higher order cognitive skills
Downside to Laptop Use in the Classroom
Laptop use in the classroom can be a good thing when used properly. Just because there’s an app for everything doesn’t mean using it is always the best choice. With note-taking, there are several contributing factors to consider before turning the laptop on:
- With all their lights, sounds, vibrations, laptops can be distracting. If the email icon pops up, who can resist checking email right then? Laptops can prevent students from focusing on the task at hand.
- All those app icons just sitting in the tray at the bottom of the screen are hard to resist. Studies show that college students may spend as much as 40 percent of class time playing around with apps.
- Students using laptops, especially those with bad typing skills, are more likely to type out notes as verbatim transcription of what the instructor/teacher is saying. They fall into a drone-like mindset, mindlessly typing without processing any of the information. This type of shallow transcription does little to promote higher order cognitive understanding and leaves the student deficient in applying the information they are trying to learn.
- The amount of information students retain is higher in those who take notes by handwriting them. Writing the information while also listening forces the learner to internalize the information, process it rapidly, paraphrase it and write it down in a condensed version.
- Summarizing content by handwriting increases the student’s ability to recall it later. It fosters comprehension and retention at a higher rate than those using laptops.
Allowing students to use technology in the classroom can be distracting and may hinder the learning process. Writing things down helps students think more deeply about the information they need to condense and will help them remember important details more readily.