Learning the “Old-Fashioned Way”: Study Says Taking Notes by Hand Better for Recall

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Category: Higher Education, Legal Education, Public
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note takingThese days, it’s hard to find a law student who doesn’t come to class with a laptop or tablet of some type. Even if the student avoids the temptation to access the Internet during class and simply uses his laptop to take notes, it’s likely his recall of concepts will be not as good as a student who takes her notes by hand.

According to a post in The Chronicle of Higher Education, researchers have found that taking class notes by hand helps students better recall concepts in the lecture. The researchers asked students to take notes using “their normal classroom note-taking strategy.” Some used laptops (disconnected from the Internet) and others used pen and paper and wrote longhand. After 30 minutes, students were tested on the lecture. Researchers discovered that while the laptop note-takers took more than twice the amount of notes as the longhand note-takers, the laptop note-takers “scored significantly lower in the conceptual part of the test.” Both groups scored the same on factual recall.

The researchers explained that laptop note-takers often “mindlessly” transcribe verbatim what they’re hearing in class. “Verbatim note-taking, as opposed to more selective [note-taking] strategies, signals less encoding of content.” That means students striving to capture every word often miss the bigger picture: the overall concept.

I’ve long held this belief. Those of us who take notes by hand know we can’t keep up with the lecture verbatim, so we have to be more selective about what we write down, thinking about what we’re hearing and looking for ways to summarize a concept quickly in our handwritten notes (which may contain any number of short-handed codes and abbreviations that we have developed over time). One semester in law school I tried using my laptop to take notes (building-wide Internet was not developed at that time, so all I could do was take notes), and it was an experiment that lasted only a couple of weeks. I felt I spent more time trying to capture things word-for-word, and getting frustrated when I couldn’t, than I did trying to capture the essence of the discussion.

In law school, where concepts are more important than factual details like names and dates, it makes sense to try to find the more effective strategy for recalling those concepts. Those who take notes on a laptop may want to try what Professor Jana McCreary has called “a laptop vacation.” (To read more about the debate on laptops in the classroom, click here.)

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2 Responses to “Learning the “Old-Fashioned Way”: Study Says Taking Notes by Hand Better for Recall”

  1. Finally, being a slow typer may have paid off. I probably took typed notes at the same pace I could have hand written them, eliminating the possibility of verbatim note taking for me.

  2. Tom Kamenick Says:

    I wonder how well people who are aware of the dangers of trying to transcribe verbatim do when they use a laptop more judiciously?

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