You’ve probably taken a bajillion notes in your life by now. It’s how you absorb and remember class lectures, organize research, and study for tests. But even though you’ve taken notes for years, there’s one big question that might still stump you: is it better to type or handwrite notes? Let’s take a look at the advantages of each before making our decision.
The case for typing
Typing notes on the computer is increasingly common. After all, its potential for quick, efficient note-taking is incredibly high. For most of us, who have been typing from the time we were kids, typing on a computer keyboard is much faster than writing by hand. A related benefit? Notes quickly typed out are sure to still be legible when you go back to study them, while notes that were quickly written down by hand may not always be tidy enough to read back, especially if you know that you have less-than-impeccable handwriting.
If you’re using your computer to take notes, you also have the benefit of all the interactive features that digital notes can offer:
- You can link to sources or further reading and even prepare your citations right there ahead of time, whether in MLA format or APA format.
- It’s quick and easy to highlight corresponding notes or jot down a side note without making a mess of the page.
- Changes can easily be undone with the click of a button.
The case for writing
Handwritten notes are a classic for a reason. Remember when you were in elementary school and your teachers made you write out your vocab words over and over? That’s because there are proven benefits to the repetitive action—namely, its positive effect on memory. But handwritten notes aren’t just about having the memory of writing it down, it’s also about the physical act of writing itself.
Studies, such as this analysis from Scientific American, have shown that there is something about the action of writing that helps the brain more clearly remember what is written. For many people, this is just part of their learning style: just like some people learn best from visual cues or from listening to something, others learn best by interacting with the lessons in a tactile way. In this case, the action of forming the individual words with your own handwriting may be preferable to the interchangeable, repetitive motion of typing on a keyboard.
The best choice is…
You guessed it: the winner is writing notes by hand. While digital notes may be convenient, that’s pretty much their only advantage. Let’s explain.
When you’re taking notes by hand, chances are good that you’ll have little to distract you from the lecture in front of you. Using the computer, however good the intentions, is a lot likelier to lead to distraction. Think about it: how easy is it to give in to temptation and check your email or Facebook page for just a second, then look up fifteen minutes later without even realizing it? Handwriting notes, although there’s always that temptation to doodle, requires more concentration and has fewer opportunities to tune out of the lesson.
Taking notes on the computer may also allow for more speed, but that’s not necessarily a good thing, as a 2014 study by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer demonstrated. When you’re taking fast notes by typing, what you’re actually doing—maybe without even realizing it—is more like transcription than note-taking. Because of this, students who use this method aren’t processing and synthesizing the information in the moment; they’re just making a record without really thinking about it. In contrast, the slower process of handwriting notes forces students to listen actively, prioritize and summarize information in the moment, and then rewrite it in a way they’ll understand later. This process allows them to figure out what’s important and how to convey it. In many ways, taking notes by hand is another layer of learning, which another study by Dung C. Bui, Joel Myerson, and Sandra Hale also showed.
Developing good note-taking skills will help you throughout your academic and professional careers. Be sure to find a style that works best for you!
Bui, Dung C., et al. “Note-Taking With Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall.” Journal of Educational Psychology, 2012.
May, Cindi. “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop.” Scientifica American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/
Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Keyboard Note Taking.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1159-1168.
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