Should students take notes on paper or laptops? It depends, studies say

Experts explain how note-taking on laptops and paper compares. Getty Images

TORONTO – Some studies suggest students who take notes using pen and paper remember more than those typing their notes on a computer, but experts and educators caution such findings should be taken with a grain of salt.

Factors other than the method of note taking can be far more significant when it comes to memorizing material, they say.

“Your long-term or short-term memory depends a lot on what you’re interested in and what you value,” said David Cameron, research director with the activist group People for Education.

One study that garnered international attention gathered information from hundreds of students from Princeton University and the University of California in Los Angeles. It found students who used laptops to take notes didn’t retain the information for long.

In contrast, according to the 2014 study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, students who handwrote their notes had a better understanding of the information.

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“I’ve seen many classrooms where kids have copied the entire board in terms of lesson structure and plan and goal, and then you walk up and ask and he says, ‘Well, I wasn’t reading, I was just copying off the board’.”

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Ester Cole, a Toronto-based child psychologist, said both skills — handwriting notes and typing them on laptops — are valuable if students want to do well. Children need to be able to utilize both fine-motor and digital skills to best complement what they’re learning, he said.

READ MORE: E-cards vs. handwritten notes: etiquette experts weigh in on the ‘rules’

“Computer technology is a tool, and tools are complementary.”

Some educators said technology can offer a distinct advantage in certain cases to handwriting and can even be a necessity.

“If your fine motor skills are not developed to the point where you’re able to write quickly enough or legibly enough, maybe the technology can help you keep up or take more legible notes,” said Kevin Bradbeer, with the Toronto District School Board.

In 2016 the University of Waterloo did a study on students who typed an essay with one hand versus two hands. They generally found that students who typed with one hand – equated in the study to handwriting — wrote better essays.

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“We’re not saying that students should write their term papers with one hand, but our results show that going fast can have its drawbacks,” says the study authored by professor Evan Risko.

“This is important to consider as writing tools continue to emerge that let us get our thoughts onto the proverbial page faster and faster.”

A study by People for Education in 2014 found 79 per cent of students in Ontario had been integrating technology into their learning since kindergarten.

Cameron says that while handwriting and technology will co-exist in education, we won’t be reverting to solely handwriting notes anytime soon.

He believes tablets will probably be mandatory for students in the future.

“You (now) expect a kid to come with a pencil and a paper,” he said. “You’re probably also, at a certain point, (going to) expect a kid to come with some sort of interactive digital device.”

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