Scientists make a case for good ol' pen and paper.

student writing notes

Most modern-day college classrooms are a sea of laptops. The sounds of pens and pencils scurrying across lined paper have long been replaced by the tapping of keyboards.

Sure, typing notes is a lot easier than the old-fashioned method, but scientists can’t help but wonder: what are we sacrificing in exchange for this kind of convenience? Are students learning like they should be?

Apparently not.

According to the results of one study published in Psychological Science, the fact that you have to be slower when you take notes by hand is what makes it more useful in the long run.

“Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended—and not for buying things on Amazon during class—they may still be harming academic performance,” lead author Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University explained in a news release.

Her research, which was conducted alongside Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA, involved 65 college students. Each was instructed to watch one of five TED Talks covering topics that were “interesting but not common knowledge.” The students were either given laptops or notebooks and were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes.

A full 30 minutes later, they were asked to answer two types of questions based on the lecture they watched: factual-recall questions and conceptual-application questions.

What they found is that while both types of note-takers performed equally well on the factual-recall questions, laptop note-takers performed “significantly worse” on the conceptual questions.

"When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can," Mueller told NPR. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective—because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."

Even with that in mind, Mueller doesn’t predict students to return to spiral notebooks.

“I think it is a hard sell to get people to go back to pen and paper," she said. "But they are developing lots of technologies now like Livescribe and various stylus and tablet technologies that are getting better and better. And I think that will be sort of an easier sell to college students and people of that generation."


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