Laptops for Note-Taking? Doonesbury and Psychologists Weigh In

The Doonesbury strip for June 8 hit on something I was reading about just yesterday. In the strip, a college professor complains to a class full of distracted students about what he calls “your tragic faith in the efficacy of multi-tasking.” I have previously blogged about the distracting use of cell phones in class, and the comic strip is an excellent companion for that post.

distracted students

Source: Wikimedia

But what about the efficacy of laptops as a learning tool? Here, the timing of the Doonesbury strip is perfect. A recent paper by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, published in Psychological Science, described three simple experiments demonstrating that taking notes longhand is superior to taking notes on a laptop computer, even if students aren’t distracted.

In the first experiment, students watched TED talks and took notes either longhand or on laptops that were disconnected from the Internet. Half an hour later, the students answered factual recall and conceptual application questions about the talks. Although the two groups did not differ on the factual recall questions, students who took longhand notes did better on the conceptual application questions. The researchers also found that students who used laptops wrote more words than those who took longhand notes, and that the laptop users had much more “verbatim overlap” with the lecture content. What the authors called “mindless transcription” predicted lower performance on the post-lecture questions.

The second experiment tested whether explicit instructions to avoid verbatim transcription would improve performance by laptop users. I’ll cut to the chase on this one: “The instruction to not take verbatim notes was completely ineffective at reducing verbatim content.” (Are any teachers reading this surprised by that result?)

However, since laptop users tended to write more words than did the longhand note-takers, perhaps they would do better if given the opportunity to use their notes to study. The third and final experiment tested this idea. Students viewed four brief lectures and were told to take notes longhand or on a laptop. A week later, half of the subjects from each group were given 10 minutes to study their notes before taking a 40-question test covering facts, “seductive details,” concepts, inferences, and applications from the four lectures. The remaining subjects did not have a chance to study before taking the test. According to the article, “Participants who took longhand notes and were able to study them performed significantly better than participants in any of the other conditions.”

There’s lots more nuance to the article, but I have captured the highlights here. The question is, what am I going to do about it when the fall semester starts? In the past, my policy has been to segregate all laptop users to the back of the room, where their bright screens and multitasking won’t distract other students. After all, my students are adults, and it’s none of my business what they do while they’re in class as long as they’re not bothering anyone else. But this August, I might discourage laptop use more strongly by pointing out that although typing is fast, it is also mindless, and their retention of the course material is likely to improve simply by writing out their notes longhand.

What about you, readers? What policies do you use now, and could this research help change your mind?

Reference: Mueller, Pam A. and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. 2014. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797614524581

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5 Responses to Laptops for Note-Taking? Doonesbury and Psychologists Weigh In

  1. debbiedisco says:

    I had been thinking about using a “no laptop” policy this fall (with exceptions for certain group work or activities, or disabilities), and your article really solidified my opinion on it. I think I’ll just briefly share the research with my students to help convince them that its in their best interests to take notes the old-fashioned way. I actually hadn’t thought of the “back row” policy – that seems great for everyone else in the class, but perhaps makes it even easier for the laptop user to disconnect from the lecture. I know one professor who uses a “front row” policy for students with a valid reason for needing a laptop so that she can keep them honest. Great summary of the research paper!

  2. Thanks for the comment! I would love to use a “front row” policy for the reason you mention, but I feel sorry for all the students behind the front row who have to see the bright moving screens. Even if the laptop-users are on task, the computers still compete for attention with the “big screen” at the front of the room. And if the computer user is looking at ESPN or Facebook, or shopping, or gambling, or worse (see the Doonesbury strip), then the distraction multiplies. I say, put the computers in the back, and let their users take responsibility for the decision to stay on task or not.

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