Why You Shouldn't Take Notes on Your Laptop

In the classroom, your laptop is not your friend

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Most people prefer typing to writing by hand, and distance learning students are no different. Viewing a video lecture on one device while typing on another, or using a split screen to take notes while viewing a course document have become commonplace.

And since students usually type much faster than they write, it’s much easier to keep up with the lecturer when using a keyboard. In addition, taking digital notes eliminates the need to keep track of notebooks or loose sheets of paper.

While these are good reasons to take laptop notes, there are two valid – and actually more important – reasons why you shouldn’t.

Handwriting Your Notes Improves Retention

“The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard,” a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, reveals that taking notes by hand is much more beneficial to students.

While typing notes allows you to move faster, and therefore, capture more information, that may not be a good thing. When students try to type everything that is said, they’re not really processing the information—they don’t have time to, because they’re tapping those keys as fast as they can.  Although students may end up with a literal transcript of the lesson, engaging in this type of verbatim note taking doesn’t really allow the brain time to process what’s being said. 

Also, when it’s time to go back and review the notes, these students have to read everything, resulting in information overload. Even if it's a core course, and regardless of how good the instructor may be, it’s highly unlikely that everything said in the lecture was noteworthy.

On the other hand, students who take handwritten notes can’t capture everything that was said. But as a result, they end up analyzing the information to determine what’s important enough to write down, and this often involves rephrasing what was said. And these two actions are more conducive to learning.

As an added bonus, when it’s time to go back and review their notes, these students can focus on the most important points.

In fact, researchers in the study conducted experiments that revealed students who took handwritten notes performed better on tests than those who typed their notes.

Handwriting Your Notes Reduces Distractions

Using a laptop—or another type of digital device—to take notes is also a bad idea for another reason. It increases the chances that you won’t pay attention. A study conducted at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that 80% of survey respondents admitted that they were less likely to pay attention in class because they were using their devices to perform other functions that were not related to the class. The students said they typically used their devices to text, check email, check social media, or surf the web.

Since distance students are usually not subject to an instructor’s disapproving scowl, they are even more likely to be distracted. While these students may not view these actions as seriously, since they can stop and rewind videos, etc., the effects are the same.   

Some students may think that they’re multitasking, but according to research conducted by psychologist Larry Rosen, learning and memory are compromised when students try to perform more than one task at a time. In a learning environment, failure to pay attention results in less comprehension, and lower recall rates.

When performing menial tasks, multitasking is not an issue. For example, washing dishes while listening to music would not pose a problem because neither action requires much mental work. However, in a learning environment—which requires the brain to process new information—trying to listen to a lecture while also responding to text messages requires the brain to use the same part of the brain for each activity.   

This results in poor performance, and it also causes other problems.

In a University of Sussex study, frequent media multitaskers—for example, those who watched TV while sending text messages—and occasional multitaskers were given an MRI. The MRI revealed that the frequent media multitaskers had lower gray matter density in the part of the brain responsible for making decisions than occasional multitaskers.  

While using your laptop to take notes may be more convenient and allow you to take more notes, quality trumps quantity. It’s more important to process what you’re hearing and just record the important parts of the lecture. And since using your laptop can also tempt you to try to juggle more than one activity at a time, notetaking can also be a deterrent to multitasking. Decide to turn off or silence any device not used for classwork so you can focus on the task at hand.