Recently, there was a lot of buzz around an NPR story with the eye catching headline, “Attention Students, Put Your Laptops Away.” The research covered in the story boiled down to handwriting good, typing bad when it came to students’ recall and understanding of complex information shared in a lecture. The researchers found that pen and paper users tended to use a generative note-taking strategy (i.e. paraphrasing, recording key pieces of information, or outlining) while the typists primarily used a non-generative strategy (i.e. trying to record things verbatim). Thankfully, unlike many other handwriting studies, this one was independent of what Freakonomics called “Big Pencil.”
Having looked at the research, I don’t disagree with one of their conclusions that generative note-taking promotes better recall and understanding than non-generative strategies. It makes sense. When you summarize or create a concept map, you are manipulating the information that you are hearing. On the other hand, verbatim note-taking turns you into a human stenographer and the volume doesn’t allow for processing. Where I take issue is with the conclusion that laptops are inherently poor tools for students and that we should go back to note-taking with pen and paper.
As someone who finds handwriting painful (and has illegible handwriting), I’m not thrilled with this conclusion. Perhaps the problem isn’t the medium, but how we teach students to note take. The researchers simply told the laptop users not to take verbatim notes. But what if we taught them how to better use their computer to take their notes? For example, I frequently tweet during professional learning, not because I’m pushing to have a back channel conversation (although I find those help deepen my learning), but because it forces me to more concisely record my thoughts in 140 character chunks.
Maybe the answer to the question that the researchers are asking isn’t which is better, the pencil or the laptop, but rather how should we teach students to take notes? What strategies would make them better learners?
And I have a sneaky suspicion that the answer doesn’t involve sitting in a lecture.