November 28th, 2017

Students, put those laptops away if you want to learn more

And take up a pen.

The evidence indicates that taking notes by hand leads to more learning. The article lists reasons why this may be so:

The experiment found that the students who used a laptop did not understand the lecture as well as those who wrote their notes out by hand. The researchers hypothesized that this was because students who wrote notes by hand had to process what the lecturer was saying and, in effect, summarize what was being said to keep up with the lecture. Additionally, they found that laptop note takers had a “tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim,” which mean they were less likely to process information into their own words…

Writing things by hand is becoming less common as gadgets and speech recognition software continue to replace pen and paper, but it’s long proven that handwriting improves motor skills, memory, and creativity.

In the article there’s a link on the word “improves” in that last sentence of the quote that goes to this 2014 piece from the NY Times:

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” said Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.”…

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.

Anyone who has composed on a computer vs. by hand probably has already perceived that difference, up close and personally. I certainly have, and I wrote a post about it that appeared on this blog in 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

Before the word processor and then the computer, I used to compose all my papers in longhand and correct them the same way, with many crossouts and additions. Once I was satisfied (or a few hours before the paper was due, whichever came first) I’d type it on my Smith-Corona, using whiteout or erasable typing paper to correct the inevitable typos. It felt like a laborious process, and it often was; I’m not the greatest typist, and Spellcheck was hardly a gleam in anyone’s eye.

So when the instantly correctable word processor and then the computer became readily available, it seemed almost miraculous. How wonderful to watch the lines jump into place when a word was removed, magically and seamlessly closing the gap.

But I noticed that my writing was changing in some subtle fashion. It was difficult to be as imaginative as before; the thoughts seemed more stilted, although the words themselves flowed onto the page far more efficiently.

But I found to my dismay that I simply could not write poetry that way, although I could edit my poems. I had to write poetry longhand. Not that much of a hardship, really, since poems tend to be relatively short.

It seemed that there was an actual physical difference in the way the hand accessed the brain and the creative juices depending on whether that hand was writing or typing. Why this should be so I do not know, but it has persisted. To this day, I write poetry only by hand, although humorous verse (like my song parodies on this blog) can easily be accomplished on the computer.

I originally felt quite strongly that my writing in general suffered when I used a computer. I’m not so sure that’s true anymore, but perhaps it is. I wouldn’t know, because I so seldom compose things by hand these days (except poetry, which I don’t compose all that often, but when I do it’s almost always by hand). Perhaps I’ve traded creativity for convenience. Or perhaps my brain has gotten much more used to working this way.

I’m really happy that these days I’m not often in a lecture taking notes. I used to detest that form of learning, which I described in this 2006 post:

Even though I was always a good student, I rarely enjoyed classes. In retrospect, I think one big reason was the “sit in your seat and listen while we talk—and talk—and talk” format. In college, I was one of those people who sat at the very back of the room during lectures, swinging my leg restlessly, doodling and smoking.

Ah yes, kids: smoking. We used to be allowed to do that in classrooms. I was never much of a smoker—I really didn’t inhale—but I liked to light up, and to amuse myself by making perfect, long-lasting smoke rings, like the old Camel’s ad in Times Square (mine were much better than his).

The point of all this is that I’m most definitely not what is known as an auditory learner. A speaker has to be riveting—and, preferably, very, very funny—to catch my attention. I’ve been to several authors’ book and/or poetry readings, and despite my best intentions and resolve (and love of books and poetry), I find that I ordinarily drift off within five minutes or less of the moment the author opens his/her mouth, “coming to”—unaware of any lapse in time—only when the applause starts that signifies the reading has ended.

When I was in college, if I’d had a laptop instead, my guess is that I’d be tempted to surf the web instead of taking notes. I always preferred the text to the lecture—I could cover the material so much faster that way. Every now and then there was a riveting lecturer in college, but alas, they were few and far between.

24 Responses to “Students, put those laptops away if you want to learn more”

  1. Frederick Says:

    I used to lecture and I did not allow laptops because students were not only distracting themselves, but each other (anyone behind you can probably see your screen).

    The trend in higher ed now is to move away from the traditional lecture format and to use lecture time for supervised work (flipped class). What no one comes right out and says, is that students won’t read the text or do work at home, so you do it in lecture so at least they’ve done something.

    Like most educational innovations, there’s been no evidence that this works better. And students complain no matter what you do with lecture time.

  2. Sharon W Says:

    I’ve always written down things I want to remember. I take notes to this day. As I age, even then, I seem to retain less.

  3. Cap'n Rusty Says:

    I think there’s a corollary to this in math. There were no electronic calculators in the 60’s, much less transistorized pocket caculators. Everything we did in elementary and high school math was by pencil and paper. Everything, even deriving a square root, or resolving a quadratic equation. Freshman year in engineering school, calculus was all paper and pencil.

    A generation later, all my kids had TI calculators for their math classes.

    Today, I couldn’t solve a quadratic equation to save my soul, but I think some sort of neural pathway was implanted in my brain as a consequence of using pen and pencil to do math. I know that 2 + 2 = 4.

    Those neural pathways will enable me to resist when O’Brien demands that I believe 2 + 2 = 5. Today’s children, who never use their own brains to figure things out, instead relying upon technology as authority, will believe O’Brien, because O’Brien represents authority. And they will sacrifice Julia.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    Notes. I always fancied the Cornell Note System.

    Expained here in PDF

    And a form for printing here

  5. Rufus Firefly Says:

    My brain seems to be wired almost the opposite of yours! I didn’t have access to a computer with a word processor until graduate school and it was life changing for me. I had enjoyed writing prior to having the use of a computer, and generally did well with writing assignments in school, but typing with a word processor opened a whole new world to me.

    My mother made sure I learned to type at a young age, and for as long as I can remember I have always been a fairly quick and accurate typist. Writing by hand goes a bit too slow for my brain and I always found the process you describe; writing multiple drafts, overly tedious. And, I think I’m a bit of a neat freak. I was never big on crossing things out or adding annotations to my drafts. In school I would rarely highlight text in a book, preferring to transfer passages I found interesting to a notebook or loose leaf paper.

    When I sat at a PC running a word processor program to type my first paper in grad school I instantly realized I didn’t have to think of everything I wanted to write in advance, and order it in my mind. I could simply start writing what was on my mind. I quickly wrote enough material for the assignment (maybe 3 – 5 pages) then started copying and pasting to move the thoughts into a logical order. I could type so much faster than I write that I began typing 20% or more extra, knowing I’d have material to pare down at the end. I also think this works better for me because I’m better at editing than writing. When I go back and read what I have typed I rather easily recognize ways to improve the passages, and areas that need more work, or should be moved around.

  6. Rufus Firefly Says:

    Cap’n Rusty,

    My grammar school adopted “new math” when I was there, and that’s the way I learned everything, up through Algebra. My folks hated it, but it was a good fit for me. Rather than drilling tables we were taught concepts.

    There was a lot of emphasis on grouping and bunching and when I got to higher math in High School and College I found it very easy to learn new concepts. I was especially good at estimating, which is very handy on multiple choice tests; like the ACT and SAT. There was also a big emphasis on number bases. At an early age we were taught that we used a base 10 number system because we have 10 fingers (more grouping and bunching) and we would be given exercises and thought experiments involving “Martians” who might have 2, 3 or 12 fingers. How would they group things? How would they add, subtract, multiply and divide? This was a big advantage for me when I got into computer science and binary, octal and hexadecimal math.

    We used slide rules in High School and estimation was also a part of that instruction. Interpolation and extrapolation of squares and cubes, logarithms… For every day use I find estimation more important than knowing exact figures although I drilled addition and multiplication tables with my own kids at an early age.

  7. Frederick Says:

    @Rusty and Rufus:

    I personally have witnessed college seniors use a calculator to multiply or divide by 1.

    I cannot tell you how many times I have seen college seniors write something like this:

    1 + 2 = 3 * 4 = 12 – 10 = 2

    Mathematically this is gibberish, like “leather sunrise”. The students don’t understand what “=” means. They think it is a button they push on their calculator, and they are writing down what buttons they pushed and in what order.

    Anything can be too much of a good thing and calculators are definitely that. In addition calculators today can often do algebra and calculus as well as store notes.

    The compromise I went with was I bought 120 identical TI scientific calculators and allowed only them on exams and during class work.

  8. Rufus Firefly Says:



  9. Frederick Says:

    @Rufus:At an early age we were taught that we used a base 10 number system because we have 10 fingers (more grouping and bunching) and we would be given exercises and thought experiments involving “Martians” who might have 2, 3 or 12 fingers.

    This might charitably be called a “lie to children”.

    The Sumerians, I am pretty sure, did not have 60 fingers, and the Mayans did not have 20, and the Anglo-Saxons did not have 12.

    Grouping and bunching was the justification for these systems. Base ten is a very poor choice, as 10 only has 5 and 2 for factors. 12 and 60 are much better, having more factors. Which is why we have 12 inches in a foot, 12 things in a dozen, and a dozen dozens in a gross.

  10. Mr. Frank Says:

    Taking notes may become a lost art as elementary schools are dropping cursive writing from the curriculum. That said, some people print very fast.

  11. skeptic Says:

    I have also noticed that I use different mental pathways when I use pen and paper vs. typing. I particularly find writing helpful when I am ‘noodling’ about a problem or issue I want to think through. Being able to draw little pictures, graphs, diagrams with words releases my ideas and creativity.

    But creating digital data allows me to do two things I can’t do with paper. One is to organize and backup–I always lose scraps of paper but don’t lose computer files. The other is to search to find my previous work.

    So I have always been interested in devices that allow me to write while producing digital data. Over the years I have bought many devices but none worked well until I bought a Sony DPT-S1 recently. It’s a big, very light weight e-ink tablet that you write on with a pen-stylus. I love it. It allows me to write/draw and then later save the results as pdf files. Here is a link to a discussion about it on the MobileRead website.

    Unfortunately, the Sony does not solve the search problem. I get some of it by organizing the files into a lot of small directories for similar topics.

    Microsoft’s Onenote program also allows you to write with a stylus on a computer screen and it does incredibly good handwriting recognition. This would solve the search problem but unfortunately it requires a pretty powerful computer so it is only available on fairly heavy tablets.

    Recently, a new e-ink tablet was released that competes with Sony. It is called the reMarkable tablet. It is somewhat smaller than the Sony so it is easier to carry around. I am resisting buying one until the early adopters fix up the initial problems. It does not do handwriting recognition either.

  12. n.n Says:

    Early reliance on technology, surrogates, etc., sabotages individual’s mental development.

    That said, I wonder how much less expensive, and how much more effective, our education system would be, if we placed children, boys and girls, first.

  13. n.n Says:

    People need to learn how their brain, not the brain of a developer or administrator functions.

  14. Molly NH Says:

    I was a bit odd, never took many notes at all just sat with my arms crossed and studiously listened to the lecturer, if there was something lacking I went to one of my friends that was a writing maniac to see if his assessment correlate with mine & saved a lot of paper and ink. lol

  15. AesopFan Says:

    I took longhand notes in classes to keep myself awake. Although I never learned official short-hand, I did have time-saving abbreviations and symbols. I could transcribe lectures almost verbatim, and became very popular until I started charging for copies.

    I very much dislike lectures that simply regurgitate the text, and tried not to do that as a teacher (computer programming), but tried to expand on the important points or add current information not in the text, or insights from actually writing programs.

    At some point you realize most of the class isn’t reading the text anyway.

  16. AesopFan Says:

    Rufus Firefly Says:
    November 28th, 2017 at 3:24 pm
    Cap’n Rusty,

    My grammar school adopted “new math” when I was there, and that’s the way I learned everything, up through Algebra. My folks hated it, but it was a good fit for me. Rather than drilling tables we were taught concepts.
    * * *
    I never understood why teachers couldn’t just do both: memorize what needs instant recall (times tables) and learn the concepts that make it work.
    My oldest son was much like you – he worked very slowly but correctly, and the teacher discovered that he was deriving his multiplication products instead of memorizing them. He does arcane system processing these days.

    Tom Lehrer had the last word on New Math, of course.
    I used to sing ithis to my students when we studied base 8 and base 2, but some of them were worried that they couldn’t take notes fast enough and wanted to know if it would be on the quiz. Sigh.

  17. AesopFan Says:

    Cap’n Rusty Says:
    November 28th, 2017 at 2:42 pm
    I think there’s a corollary to this in math.
    * *
    I taught summer school algebra one year and took away the calculators because they didn’t understand the concepts they were trying to calculate.

    Isaac Asimov predicted where this electronic dependence would lead eventually:

  18. AesopFan Says:

    vanderleun Says:
    November 28th, 2017 at 3:02 pm
    Notes. I always fancied the Cornell Note System.
    * * *
    Wish I’d know that system 40 years ago, would have helped me a lot.
    I’ll start using that when I go to church.
    Instead of taking class notes now, I transcribe sermons to stay awake – I’m much like Neo when listening to lectures in any form.

  19. Jim Says:

    While I skipped my share or dozed, I always felt lectures were extremely important because those guys knew their stuff and it was an hour devoted to pointing out the important stuff, the relationships between facts, the how, when, where. Then go back to your dorm or home, read the texts, learn it and put it together yourself. Loved learning. At 75, still do. Love word processors, calculators, etc. also. Time savers. They increase efficiency. Much faster than hand writing, much faster to correct, strike out, redo, re-write, whatever. Allows more time for thinking and being creative.

  20. huxley Says:

    Like neo I never got the hang of the conventional lecture format while in college.

    I figured if they really had good stuff to say, why didn’t they write it down, xerox it, hand the pages out in class and save me 45 minutes or so of trouble.

    Last week I finished the online MIT Calculus I course. I took scrupulous notes Cornell-style and it made a difference. I didn’t review the notes as often as I should have, but I did review them and they were coherent, cognitive boosts.

    Here’s “The Cornell Note-taking System” from the horse’s mouth, i.e. Cornell U., not Vanderleun’s website.

  21. huxley Says:

    One of the greatest chess coaches in the world is Artur Yusupov, also a world champion candidate in his heyday. Yusupov offers a brilliant nine-volume set chess course, which distills the wisdom of the incomparable Soviet chess training system.

    In this course Yusupov explicitly demands the student refrain from computers in any form and do all work by hand — that is with a real chessboard and real chess pieces and a real pen/pencil and paper.

  22. Gringo Says:

    I find digital applications to traditional learning to be six of one, half a dozen of the other.

    Laptop note taking for STEM classes is useless, as the various equations and diagrams used in STEM lectures are much easier to write by hand.

    Regarding auditory versus visual learning, note taking for STEM classes was rather easy, as it generally consisted of writing down what the professor put in the chalkboard. Like Neo, I am not a pure auditory learner, so don’t react so well to pure talkers.

    When I went back to school for a second career in my 40s, I encountered some STEM profs who wrote very little down, expecting the student to pluck the equation of out mid-air, as it were. There was a math prof who sped through the lecture, writing down on the board much less than the average math prof. Ten to fifteen minutes before the class ended, he finished the lecture to open up for questions. My unspoken response was that had the prof written all the important stuff down, there wouldn’t be so many questions. Rest assured that I didn’t enroll in those STEM classes with more talk than chalk. 🙂

    Regarding not understanding a STEM lecture the first time, my experience was that if I was being exposed to the material the first time, I didn’t really understand it. I needed to go over the material after class- lecture notes and problems.

    I am reminded of a Thermo prof who was very curt to students who went to his office with questions. “What’s the matter, you didn’t go over my lectures?” His lectures were impeccably organized. The prof was correct: if you went over his lecture notes after class, they would sink in a lot better.

    But in support of digital stuff, I found writing much easier on a computer screen than I did on paper. Spelling/typographical errors were much easier to correct on a computer screen than on a piece of typing paper.

    In comparing writing on a computer screen versus handwriting, I came to the same conclusion. Part of the issue was that from elementary school on teachers had complained about my handwriting. What few pieces I later saw of my elementary school writing showed many examples of erased words- which were most likely attempts to make the handwriting more legible. Which made writing a pain.

    Ironically, in recent years, I have gotten a number of compliments on the appearance of my handwriting. Rest assured I have made no attempts to make my handwriting more legible, which makes those compliments a surprise to me.

    Neo’s point about writing poetry is well taken. Poetry is slow. Best to write by hand.

    I had never seen the Cornell note-taking procedure. That reminds me of a comment a friend made while sitting in on a Statics class with me. While I was taking notes, making sure that all that was on the board was in my notebook, my friend pointed out that I was also doodling. Mostly geometric designs. As if my hand had to be doing something all the time.

  23. GRA Says:

    I find myself memorizing and understanding concepts better when I take notes. The downside to taking notes on a computer, for me, is when essay form exams come around and I struggle in expression since I have gotten use to expressing myself on a digital format. I somewhat want to rectify this issue in investing in a typewriter; that way I’m forced to take my time and relearn how to “think on my feet” when it comes to handwritten expression.

  24. GRA Says:

    @ Frederick: “Like most educational innovations, there’s been no evidence that this works better. And students complain no matter what you do with lecture time.”

    My high school has moved to a STEM program (it’ll probably become STEAM with “A” being arts) for two reasons. The first being the job market (I recently heard the same reasoning for STEM programs in my city’s public school system) and, the second, that it’s believed that it will increase critical thinking and problem solving within project based assignments. There’s a lot of talk from the president of the high school on how great it is, and I don’t doubt that it has its benefits, but given how my high school is presenting it the curriculum seems so one sided that any parents looking for a balanced curriculum would just smile, walk away, and search elsewhere.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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