In-Class Laptop Note Taking – the Keys to Failure

Elizabeth Bouwkamp-Staff Writer

buffpostLet’s put a scenario on this. A junior biology major sits in a lecture hall for an upper-level science course. Her professor covers too many chapters, on too many slides, with too many words. Her solution? Laptop note-taking! After all, typing is faster than writing.

While this use of deductive reasoning – lectures contain too many notes…my science class is a lecture…therefore, my science class contains too many notes – may be correct, the laptop note-taking solution is incorrect.

In the SAGE Journal of Psychological Science, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer published an article entitled, “The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.” Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted three studies addressing laptop and longhand (pen and notebook) note-taking methods.

In the first study, students from Princeton University listened to a lecture and chose their preferred method of note-taking. After the lecture, students engaged in two distraction games followed by a memory recall test from the lecture. In the memory test, laptop and longhand note takers scored equally well on factual questions, but the longhand note takers scored significantly higher on conceptual/application questions.

The study said students using laptops are more likely to take longer, word-for-word notes. But are the length and depth of one’s notes equivalent to reading and listening comprehension?

According to Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study, “Mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review.”

The second study consisted of students from the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers asked students not to take word-for-word notes. Even though they were asked to refrain from direct transcription of lecture notes, students continued to engage in this habit. Researchers found, yet again, longhand participants scored higher on conceptual/application questions after the lecture.

In the third and final study, the researchers addressed whether greater content of notes through laptops pays off later when students study for tests. Students from UCLA viewed four lectures and returned for a test on those lectures the following week.

After studying, the longhand note takers still exceeded their laptop-using peers in recollection of factual content and conceptual understanding.

Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study suggested that “longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions.”

To encode notes means to understand the notes while they are presented. To decode notes means to verbally, or through the written word, express what has been learned. Encoding is the process of information going into the brain, while decoding is the process of information going out of the brain.

In a final discussion of their study, Mueller and Oppenheimer noted, “Laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even – or perhaps especially – when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note-taking.”

Although a few situations might call for direct transcription (such as business meeting dates, times, phone numbers and contact information), in-class note-taking calls for learning – not copy sessions.

The laptop note-taking increase cannot be blamed on too many notes and too many slides. It is a matter of choosing engagement over transcription – a matter of understanding over mindless work.

The cliché saying “No pain, no gain” comes to mind. Without a stretching of the mind, learning does not occur. It is harder to pay attention and engage in an 8 a.m. lecture, but what is gained if going-through-the-motions replaces long-term recall and what happens if quick fixes cover an ability to succeed in the classroom?

Think about it. The next time your laptop slides into the designated driver seat in class, consider the way it felt to learn and remember a new play in basketball, a new song on the radio or a new card game with your friends. Did learning those new things come from mindless effort or listening and engaging? Knowledge acquisition and learning are great, but only for those who retain it.

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