When I was in college we all took notes using paper and a pen/pencil. (We didn’t have much of a choice of course.) These days it is common for students to take notes using a laptop. Is there a difference? Do students learn more, or less, or the same? Intuitively it doesn’t seem like it should matter, but a recent intriguing study in the journal Psychological Science by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA suggests otherwise. In three studies they found that students who take notes by hand outperform students who take notes on a computer on a conceptual test administered 30 minutes after viewing the lecture. (They found that the two groups performed equally well on a fact-based test.) And in a follow-up test one week later — allowing students to review their notes before the test — they found the same results.
Why? After reviewing the students’ notes they found that students who took notes on a laptop tended to record the lecture verbatim but students who took notes by hand had to paraphrase (they couldn’t write that fast). So, the researchers hypothesize that the hand-writers had to do more cognitive processing of the material while paraphrasing, but the laptop note takers were just acting as verbatim transcribers.
This makes sense to me. It ties in with many other studies that show that to learn something you need to “make it yours” by cognitively processing the material and reproducing it in your own words and thoughts.