One Easy Way to Improve Your Retention

Could You Be Taking Notes WrongDo you take your laptop to class to take notes?

Do you find yourself wishing you made better scores on tests?

According to research conducted by psychologists Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA, there is a strong positive correlation between taking notes the old-fashioned way with pen and paper and higher test scores. Though laptops are notorious for distracting students in the classroom with the ability to access the Internet and multi-task, Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research indicates that using a laptop only for taking notes still greatly hampers a student’s learning ability.

Why Does Your Method Matter?

Why does the method of taking notes in a lecture matter? When we are writing, it is impossible to write down every word as fast as a person talks, so we have to be very selective in choosing which information is important enough to document. As we are listening to someone, we have to actively think through what is being said and summarize it to capture all of the main points. This method boosts our comprehension and retention of the information for success come test day.

On the other hand, while typing, we tend to transcribe verbatim everything said, quickly creating a long, copious record. Once we get the hang of it, typing becomes second nature. It is really easy to type at fast speeds without having to stop and think about what is being said. It becomes a rather mindless endeavor where we are not forced to analyze what we are documenting. As a result, there is lower retention and a lack of understanding of the information.

What the Research Says About Note Taking Retention

How do we know this?

Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted three separate studies on a total of 327 students. The researchers had students listen to a lecture, take notes how they normally do and complete a test on the material afterwards.

When they were tested soon after the lecture, writers scored higher than typists on their conceptual understanding of the lecture material. However, both parties scored about the same on their knowledge of the factual information in the lecture.

Although, when extra time was given after the lecture to go home and study, typists scored lower than writers on both parts of the test.

The results are published in Psychological Science under the title, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note-Taking.”

Why Too Much Information Can Decrease Retention

Since typists were able to take almost twice as many notes during the lecture as the writers, thus having even more information to go over at home, it seems contradictory that the typists would do worse on a test they had time to study for. Yet, their typed notes, along with easy-to-access online lecture content posted by professors, make it easy to forgo engaging in any real brain power. Having all of the information laid out beforehand eliminates the need to organize and synthesize the material when studying, so it becomes difficult to recall that same material when tested. On the other hand, writers have an advantage when studying, because their personal way of writing notes jogs their memory of not only the content of a lecture, but also the context.

Mueller and Oppenheimer observed that the typists consistently took verbatim notes during the lecture, so they issued a verbal warning to some of them: “People who take class notes on laptops when they expect to be tested on the material later tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much.” They then suggested that these typists actively listen to the lecture and put it into their own words. However, those who received the warning performed no better than those who did not. Overcoming the natural inclination to quickly and mindlessly hammer away at the keyboard is hard to do.

Why Writing Notes is Fight for Retention

Why does writing work? Brain scans have shown that writing affects the brain differently than typing. The way in which writing triggers the brain is different, proving that the hand has a “unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas.”

To learn is to do more than memorize and recite facts. We have to have an all-encompassing grasp of what we are learning, so it can be carried on and applied in new situations. Writing is a tool that forces us to exercise the cognitive abilities needed to store information long term.

But Wait, I Like My Technology

For typists, the root of the problem lies in the elementary school classroom. Handwriting is no longer taught as prevalently in American schools as society becomes increasingly dependent on technology.

However, it is possible that proper writing skills can be practiced through the use of electronic devices. With all of the kinds of applications that can be downloaded today, one that allows students to write on their tablets or similar devices could be developed in the future. For technology-driven students, that might be an acceptable compromise.

Even so, avoiding using electronics in the classroom altogether seems to be the best solution. Besides the fact that taking notes on a laptop lowers test scores, evidence suggests that laptop users “spend 40% of class time using applications unrelated to coursework, are more likely to fall off task, and are less satisfied with their education.” Our devices can be a huge distraction and obstacle during our education if we are not careful. So next time you go to class, try leaving the laptop at home. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Tell us about your experiences with writing vs. typing in the comments below.

***All information sourced from The Washington Post’s “Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes,” The Scientific American’s “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s "Taking Notes by Hand Benefits Recall, Researchers Find".


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