Is the Pen Mightier Than the Keyboard?

Hi Everyone,

I've heard this argument before: taking notes by hand leads to greater retention than taking notes using technology. This idea recently surfaced again when Trish Udell brought the article, The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking to my attention.  The article concludes that laptop note takers tend to reproduce lectures word-for-word instead of processing the information and creating notes using their own words. This resulted in poorer performance on answering conceptual questions. 

Personally, I find taking notes with my laptop leads to far more distraction. As I toggle back and forth between the webinar I'm watching and the document where I am taking notes, I am very likely to make detours to check email or browse the web on an interesting tangent. 

Also, we all know that digital skills are highly important in today's labor market. 

How do we balance digital literacy with the improved comprehension from longhand note taking?

Thanks for your thoughts,

Steve Schmidt, Moderator

LINCS Reading and Writing Group 


Hi Steve and all, Thanks for sharing this interesting study. You spoke about your own tendency to be distracted while taking notes on a computer.  I know that's true for me as well.  I also have had a tendency to believe that I am able to multi-task effectively. However, lots of research has shown that, in reality, we don't perform as effectively when trying to attend to more than one thing, i.e., multi-task.  Importantly, the authors of this article conclude that when taking notes by hand, people are more likely to synthesize as they write.  It is the processing of information that may be why note-taking by hand leads to better learning outcomes.

It would be super interesting to hear what members think about all of this!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition Group

Often having to take notes by hand *does* mean I have to synthesize to summarize so OK, it's a good thing. 

Usually, though, I want to be synthesizing and extending ideas and that means getting te ideas down a lot faster (so it's not trying to multitask). 

It completely depends on the situation.  Is it a Lecture Class Like The Old Days?   Well, if that's the case, I want my whatever the name of the pen is that records as I take notes on paper with teeny dots so I can tap the paper later and hear what was being said.  

Is it a meeting?  I want to get as much info down *as I can* so ... let me be typing fast. It's also how I can keep from trying to multitask :P  

Yes, if I write something down a frew times I'm very likely to remember it -- but for many learners the writing task is its own task so ... that's "multitasking."   Keyboarding (esp. w/ word prediction) would be better for them.

I find it challenging to type while listening. Perhaps it's because laptops and computers were not something that were accessible to everyone when I was in high school and college, so taking notes on one was something that I had never done. When that option became available to me in grad school, it just didn't feel natural and it never has over a decade later. 

I have found a happy medium which is using a note-taking app on a tablet to write my notes. They are saved to the cloud, so I don't need to keep track on pieces of paper but I still must synthesize what I am writing. Coming back to your initial question of How do we balance digital literacy with the improved comprehension from longhand note-taking? My answer would be that I don't know that we need to. I think that offering the options to students and having them reflect on what works for them and why is an essential step in becoming a self-directed learner. It is only through experimentation with the different note-taking methods that we find what works for us. For some, digital note-taking just won't work. But maybe in 20 years, a tech tool will be on the market that does work for them. If they know how to try something and reflect on it, providing reasoning, they can continue to grow.

I agree! 

I think it's most important to figure out what we're taking notes for.   It's going to be different in different situations, courses, etc. I really *might* just have to be getting as much of the stuff as I can so I can *figure it all out later* if it's going fast and I don't have background knowledge.   I might also be making connections and taking thigs in 12 different directions (especially if it's... boring :P )   

I take notes long hand  - and type what I want to remember or share.  I use computers for composing information.   We are seeing so many students who do not take notes at all .  They have not learned cursive. their printing is illegible.  The only digital skills they have are texting and playing video games.   Yet they will need to at least type an essay for the GED exams. 

We have been working with students on keeping journals -- especially in math.  We provide those bound composition books.  We give short writing assignments that they most do by hand. 

Today we talked about how we have to help people develop the motor skills related to hand writing -- if only to develop a legible signature -- but also to practice for times in life --when note taking by hand could be important --  visit to doctor's office. I also say this article:  Claire Gillespie , "Writing by Hand Boosts Brain Activity and Fine Motor Skills," VeryWellMind, Oct 24, 2020 .  The more I read these articles, I believe we should spend some more time on the motor skills related to writing by hand.  I am in my seventies -- and in my youth --we learned cursive dipping a pen into an inkwell -- and  we spent hours drawing circles and practicing letters -- which quite frankly I hated.  I can't see any of my students spending .

Does anyone on this list know of a good resource for helping adults develop a signature in cursive?

Thank you!

This discussion is super interesting. I agree that each person should decide what works best for them when taking notes --given the situation. With regard to taking notes on the computer, I do so all the time. It's easy for me because I can type fast. There are many learners who have not learned keyboarding skills. This discussion has made me wonder about keyboarding skills. Are these skills important? Or should we not worry about it at all and emphasize taking notes by hand?

Cheers, Susan

I too find this conversation interesting! I strongly agree with Erin V's earlier comments about helping students reflect on what works best for them and offering them options in class. We may also need to talk more about note-taking: brief, relevant comments about the value and purpose of taking notes and how it could impact their thinking and reflection processes. Some students may not take notes because no one has really explained the value of it to them yet.

I also want to point out that even if students don't have great keyboarding skills yet, the quickest way to develop them is by DOING! If we offer some non-time-pressing opportunities for students to keyboard some assignments, they'll have the chance to get better at it and gain confidence for activities such as the GED extended response. When my son was in middle school, his handwriting was TERRIBLE - he hated writing with pen because of the difficulty covering up mistakes, & he hated using a pencil because he didn't like how hard he had to press on the paper to get it to be legible. So his individual sensory issues and preferences drove him to learn to keyboard, partly because his excellent teachers recognized his needs and allowed for some choice in how he submitted his assignments.  God bless all the teachers who recognize our students' strengths and needs! :)

I tend to teach a lot of math, which is hard to type in the best of circumstances, so I haven't had the issue of students trying to type their notes. It would be interesting to watch a Math Antics or Khan Academy video as a class and then literally compare notes afterward. A lot of students are all-or-nothing note takers: they either write down every word or they get frustrated because that's nearly impossible and don't write down anything. Maybe seeing what others did (including the teacher) would be useful. Really, I think that for many students, it's more a matter of learning to take notes at all--my guess is that the difference between keyboard and paper is small compared to the difference between taking notes and not taking them. It would be interesting to replicate this study with a no-notes condition.

I do think students should be taught keyboarding skills. Some of my struggles as a writer came from having to hold ideas in my head while also performing a non-automatic task, and I could see that same challenge holding back many of my students on the essay portion of the HSE tests. The problem is that teaching a muscle memory skill requires a fair amount of practice, and we rarely have that kind of time in adult education. At this point, I mostly just share useful websites and encourage students to practice outside of class, but that only works for those with access to a device with a keyboard and the time to really practice. Yet another way that even small differences in privilege can compound... 

...just saw Anita's comment above and wanted to make clear that we certainly can give students time in class to type so that they get some practice. For me personally, developing fluency with motor skills requires a lot more time than that, though, and I expect some of our students are the same.

For some folks I work with, the keyboarding is happening first because it's taking up their thinking  -- as in, not spelling their name right on login.   Sigh, today was the impossible task of doing an online application but that's another story. 

I agree that spending time figuring out why we're taking notes (and it's going to be different in different situations) is prob'ly more important than the medium -- especially in math, where the goal for my folks is to be able to understand a problem presented and figure out what's being asked for and then figuring it out...  some of mine jot down key phrases (different sign -- subtract)... and yes, the writing is what's helping them process and remember that. (Happy, today for that student what seemed impossible seems possible now :))