You should take lecture notes with pen and paper

My highly advanced note-taking setup. (details on Flickr)

Is it a good idea to use a laptop to take lecture notes instead of writing them on paper?

My personal experience says no. There’s the allure of the Internet, and looking around in a classroom, I’m not the only one who can’t always resist it. Even when I do avoid the distractions, my concentration feels more superficial than when using paper and pen. Taking mathematical notes has the extra problem of writing down the notation and capturing the explanatory drawings - both are straightforward on paper.

Anecdotes are fun, but is there any research to back this claim? Here’s a study1 that agrees with me:

They acknowledge the risk of distractions, but even when the distractions are avoided, they claim that laptop notes are worse:

The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing.

This is because laptop users tend to transcribe lectures verbatim, whereas longhand users have to put it in their own words, because they write slower with a pen than with a keyboard. The cognitive processing required for reframing the information is the key for better recall. (This is also mentioned in my scientific learning hacks!)

To me, taking useful notes seems like a skill that takes practice. The article does not discuss this. My gut feeling is that if you’re mindful about results like this, you can become very efficient at taking notes with laptop. In the second experiment described in the article, laptop users were asked to avoid verbatim notes. This didn’t help much, but maybe you can do better, because you understand why it matters.

Myself, I’m going to continue with pen and paper. In theory, computerized notes are great - they’re searchable and everything! - but in practice I haven’t found many benefits. They’re a bit easier to write, but that easiness is what makes them more shallow.

Comments or questions? Send me an e-mail.