Should Students Take Notes on a Computer?

Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for instructors to include notes regarding laptop and internet use in their course syllabi. Many instructors ban the use of electronics, including laptops, due to the assumption that these machines may be more distracting than helpful during class time. However, students often argue that they can take better notes on their laptops rather than on paper. Oftentimes, out-of-class assignments are done electronically, further encouraging students to rely on their computers to complete all of their coursework. So today’s educators must now question whether or not taking notes on a laptop has a detrimental effect on student performance.


The Allure of the Internet

In a 2016 study by Michigan State University, researchers found that the use of laptops in class actually led to students earning lower test scores, regardless of their level of academic motivation. The study found that students in an introductory psychology class spent an average of 37 minutes of class time using the internet to do things unrelated to the course—from online shopping to browsing social media. However, the internet has a wealth of benefits for college students and educators alike, including streamlining and optimizing the research process and keeping students and teachers connected outside of the classroom. Students have answers to their questions quickly and efficiently. They have platforms to share progress, find help, and build digital projects. On the other hand, students can use the internet to do academically dishonest things, such as stealing pre-written essays and finding someone else to complete their work for them. There are as many, if not more, personal and fun uses for the internet as there are educational uses, and finding a balance between these functions can be challenging for students.

Writing, Remembering, and Doing

The basic act of writing something down sets off a process in our brains that essentially helps us remember things better. One study of students listening to a lecture found that while the students who wrote down notes and those who wrote nothing all remembered the same amount of information from the lecture, the students who took notes remembered the more pertinent pieces. Think of it this way: when students take notes while listening to a lecture, they’re making choices about how to order and prioritize the information they’re hearing. This process helps them hold onto those particular ideas better. Teachers who notice they have students not taking notes, or students who think they aren’t taking effective notes, should offer them a place to start: write down the things that are new.

If something comes up in the lecture that hasn’t been covered yet, it should be prioritized. Advise students to pay the most attention to information from their readings; material that will be covered on a future exam or in an essay; and specific information such as names, dates, and definitions. By focusing on this kind of material, students can handwrite the notes that they will need the most later on rather than worrying about getting down every word.


Don’t Write Verbatim!

Since most students can type much faster than they can write by hand, it’s pretty tempting for them to spend an entire lecture typing every word their professor says. While this kind of note taking might seem to be an effective method, it actually isn’t. In fact, it’s just the opposite. In a note taking study published in Psychological Science, researchers found that students who took notes by hand on paper retained and understood the material better than their classmates who chose to type out their notes during class. The actual process of writing by hand required students to think more critically about the information they were choosing to write down, as they didn’t have the ability to write down the professor’s words verbatim.

Other scholars also argue that the act of writing by hand is an important one for students to engage with regularly, especially in a world where that form of writing is starting to become obsolete. Writing by hand exercises complex motor skills and encourages more creativity, as writing on paper offers more freedom than typing on a word processing program.

Advantages of Typing Notes

Despite the arguments for writing notes by hand in class, typing out notes during a lecture has its own unique benefits and advantages. New classroom-centered software is being developed on an almost constant basis, creating opportunities for students to use these new platforms to actively engage with the material they’re learning while the professor is teaching it. One professor at the University of Michigan introduced the Echo360 Active Learning Platform in his classroom and found that the more students participated with the platform during class, the higher their test scores were.

Having a laptop in class and using it to take notes during lectures can also enable students to do quick online searches for more information on the topic, expanding their exposure to the material. Students typing their notes may also have the ability to organize their notes more effectively through creating tables, digital organizers, and graphics. Typing out notes has the added benefit of preventing the issue of not being able to read messy handwriting later on.

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