Benefits of Taking Notes by Hand

Do you take notes by hand?

In distance education, many students type lecture notes on their computers, rather than writing on paper. After all, students use laptops to watch lectures, answer assessment questions, and participate in class discussions. It’s only natural to use the same device for taking notes, too, right?

Not so fast.

Last year, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, studied how the two note-taking methods affect student assessment performance. The results? In short, they found that taking notes on a laptop can “negatively affect performance on educational assessments.”

If you’re reading this, perhaps you’re already nodding your head in agreement: Of course, computers can harm learning—think of all those tempting and distracting online games and Facebook memes!

But what’s really fascinating about Mueller and Oppenheimer’s experiments is that they relied on computers that were disconnected from the Internet. Without even a working web browser, students were free to focus on the lecture content.

Nevertheless, those who took longhand notes consistently outperformed their high-tech peers when tested for conceptual recall. But why?

Mueller and Oppenheimer found that, when people type notes, they tend to write as much as possible, almost to transcribe every word.

Students who take notes by hand are forced to summarize main points, and that process strengthens their understanding.

Even when Mueller and Oppenheimer specifically told participants not to take verbatim notes, they still wrote far more words than longhand note-takers. The old quality-over-quantity standard strikes again.

So, how does this apply to distance education? Online instructors might encourage their students to grab a pen and sit back, away from their computers, to watch a full-screen lecture video. At first, students probably won’t like being separated from their keyboards and trackpads. But who knows? Maybe they’ll be pleasantly surprised when they see their next quiz scores.


Mueller, P. A., and D. M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159-168. Web.

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