Of course, there's always the inherent problem of observational studies: Is the note-taking style affecting student performance, or does student aptitude determine note-taking style? The students who already have a reasonable grasp of course material are likely to be manage with the limited bandwidth of handwritten notes, whereas students who don't understand anything and are consequentially unable to identify which parts are important may be predisposed to prefer a higher-bandwidth note-taking system.
What if you did the opposite? What if you found out what the professor was going to lecture on and studied it (using text books) before the lecture? That way you could spend the lecture time listening to the professor and devising questions for the things you don't understand.
Yeah... I only figured that out in my last year ;-) We really should teach students how to study.
Handwriting, being free-form, is far superior to typing for this, as it's easy and quick to insert things, add arrows to relate ideas, circles for grouping, emphasis in several different ways etc.
I agree the quality of this personal textbook does vary with your preparation, background knowledge, density of the material is, and your aptitude for this particular material.
Back to pen and paper for me, and loads of post-its for bookmarks.
"In Yui Shosetsu’s military instructions, “The Way of the
Three Ultimates,” there is a passage on the character of karma. He received an oral teaching of about eighteen chapters concerning the Greater Bravery and the Lesser Bravery. He neither wrote them down nor committed them to memory but rather forgot them completely. Then, in facing real situations, he acted on impulse and the things that he had learned became wisdom of his own. This is the character of karma."
Personally, I'm all for taking digital notes as they are searchable and can be backed up. I think either way, the process of taking notes is more important than the tools.
So tell me, why is the study wrong?
Let me give you an example where the study can be wrong. My son is an Aspergers. He is classified as gifted or near gifted (it's a fine line). However, he struggles to write. So, in his case, he has 2 options: (1) just listen [he has a great memory and this has proven to work well], or (2) type.
I take these types of advice with a grain of salt. Rather than the what, I focus on the why.
My own experiences reflect those of many commenters here: I wrote notes and either couldn't read them or didn't go back to them. I most probably should have listened rather than scribe myself.
I'm exaggerating of course, but I think that sums up the discussion here?
> Laptop users instead took notes by rote, taking down what they heard almost word for word.
That does sound like a bad idea. However, a student could also use a laptop to take more abstract notes (as I assume the pencil users did). On the other hand, a pencil user might be able to write shorthand, thus taking almost verbatim notes (which would probably be less useful).
So, instead of ditching your laptop, think about how to use it.
What enhances both information retention and understanding for myself personally is "active note-taking" - that is, not only writing down what the instructor is saying, but writing down my own thoughts along with it.
At the time, there was one national exam you could take at the end of first year to join a mid-tier "École" (engineering school) directly. I knew I was good enough that I would almost certainly pass, and I decided to take it. There were two days of written tests. The first one went well, but as I was walking up to the 2nd day of tests I was mugged in the street. I ended up spending that day in a hospital, so I couldn't take the test. Now I had no other choice but to stay in CPGE for one more year.
After that episode I decided I couldn't continue like before, something had to change.
One of the main things I changed was that I stopped transcribing classes. That was considered heresy by teachers, who told me I would certainly fail. You have to understand that math teachers (not all of them, but mine did) wrote their lecture on a black board, and you were supposed to transcribe all of it. You would end up with binders full of math demonstrations that you were supposed to learn by heart.
The problem is, I am completely unable to focus on two things at once, and writing takes focus. So while I was copying what was written on that black board, I was not understanding it. Just the math classes took something like 16 or 18 hours per week, and I was wasting all that time. So instead, I bought books. I would read them in advance so when I went to class I knew what the teacher would talk about, and I would understand the details and the demonstrations.
The result? My grades went back up. At the competitive exams at the end of the year, I got the best rankings of my class, better than those of students who had taken the 2nd year twice.
So of course, this is anecdote, but I just wanted to say that what you wrote resonates with me 100 %.
When I was younger, I used to never take notes and remembered almost everything. I never had a photographic memory, but certainly remembered enough to understand and do very well on tests.
As I got older, doing that became harder and harder, so I started relying on notes. My note-taking skills went from pretty poor to really good, and now I feel crippled if I can't take notes. This is especially true when the course-load is high, and you're expected to remember a ton of material per course. Relying exclusively on your memory for something like that is only effective for a certain fortunate segment of the population.
Notes are also great for review years or even decades later, when the things you may have remembered at the time are long forgotten. They're also great for sharing with friends and publishing, like Sacha Chua does with her notes.
 - http://sachachua.com/blog/2013/05/how-to-learn-emacs-a-hand-...
 - http://sachachua.com/blog/sketched-books/
After throwing away the idea of taking notes and concentrating on understanding exactly what was being said 100% of time, everything got easier and if I remember right, my marks even improved. And the best part: less stress.
I very much recommend never taking notes. If you concentrate and understand exactly what is going on, you don't need notes. You can look up whatever little facts you may need later in the textbook or online. If you understand the concepts, there really are no notes that need to be taken.
I split understanding and summarizing personally, because understanding is more about being able to replicate the methods used, while summarizing is about condensing the lesson into a key point that could aid understanding. I personally find that the summarizing technique does not aid understanding any more than simply following along with the logic and concentrating fully on why it's happening.
Obviously some people may require that extra summarized step to allow them to recall the lesson, but I've been able to do without it by concentrating on the flow and linking it to other knowledge that I've already internalized. That way you don't need those key points jotted down for later - you just need to reason about where you're trying to go and use the understanding to plot a course. Then look up the steps where you know you're unclear on the details in a textbook or web search.
I do make use of mind-mapping now, though. It's handy for dissecting a big linear text into branches and partitions and not overlooking parts when I try to review.
He provided us with lecture notes, usually containing all the definitions, theorems, lemmas, and proofs and then encouraged us to take notes on the margins of the lecture-notes.
My first year I took no notes, and attended lectures intermittently. And got the middling results you'd expect.
The next year I looked in the syllabus and tried to do the assigned reading (to be read after the lecture) before the lecture. Often it was confusing, but some of it I'd understand. But that way the lectures were more useful since I could tell when the prof was explaining something I didn't understand, and I had the context for it.
Of course the ideal lecture would be "well you all have read the material; here's the stuff that's hard and/or non-obvious about it." But since what's hard varies from person to person, it's not really possible for a prof to do this except in a small seminar.
And of course note I said "I tried to do the assigned reading" ahead of time. In retrospect I wish I'd done it 100% of the time, but really humans are humans and the amount I did manage it paid off.
However in memorization based classes, skipping notes is entirely suboptimal. When you're expected to keep esoteric information in your head for months at a time, you need every edge you can get. And in my experience, the most powerful edge is knowing exactly what was said in class.
At the end of the day it comes down to picking the right tool for the job. Back in college, I took handwritten notes for my technical courses so I could draw in figures. For courses like Biology, I took transcript-style notes on my laptop, and they were extremely effective.
I suspect the confounding factor in this study is that students who bring laptops are far more distracted on average than note takers, not that typed notes in and of themselves produce worse outcomes than hand written notes. Unfortunately, people see headlines like this and immediately jump to conclusions, which is a shame. Computers are powerful tools if used properly.
An encouragement design might be more appropriate to the question, anyway. The policy decision from an institution's perspective isn't really, "Should students take notes or not?" It's, "Should we be advising students to take notes or not?"
I agree, the classes where I've learnt the most are the ones where notes are posted ahead of time, you can look over them, actually listen during class, and gain an understanding of the subject, not just memorize bits and pieces to then transcribe on the exam.
I've found the main reason that lecturers don't hand out the notes in advance is that they fear the students only attend for the handout (which is a pretty damning critique of the lecture if true) and the lecturers are in turn evaluated via student attendance.
However, at least for some subjects, I think note taking with technology can be perfectly accurate and enable review better than handwriting. (At least for me.)
This was my note taking system for a more recent history class, (usually a poor subject for me) where most everything in the lectures had to be remembered:
Record audio, while basically typing a transcript... (I used audionote and a Bluetooth keyboard on an iphone (small screen) with no notifications.) This helped me stay focused on every word. I also sat near the front.
In an audio editor, (audacity) I removed background noise, changed the rate 2x, detected and removed pauses between words, then edited out where he repeated himself...
That compressed a two hour lecture to about 25 minutes.
Then I could listen and follow along and correct my notes, reviewing the entire semester fairly quickly.
Students that took handwritten notes near me asked for a copy of my compressed audio and transcript/outline, which I put in a Dropbox.
I personally would not have aced or (perhaps) survived that class by just handwriting notes. I'm too slow/messy and prone to doodling...
With malleable text and audio it's easier for me to accurately trim, condense, and focus on what is needed.
Another route would be to improve at hand note taking, but I'd worry that I missed something important.
How much time did it take you per lecture just to clean up the audio recording? My guess is 10-15 mins. The way I see it is that it's not a lot in general, but if you factor in the cost of context switching, it can become a time sink.
Then, as you noted, there's the task of writing a pseudo-transcript to make later referencing easier. Without it, the audio is completely useless in my view. But there's a trade-off here between granularity and effort required to set it up.
I might still give it a go though, just to see if I can manage it for more than a few weeks. I get distracted easily :(
- Select a pause in the recording.
- Effect -> Noise removal, get noise profile
- Select everything.
- Effect -> Noise removal
- Effect -> Change tempo, 100% change? (don't remember exactly, but whatever is still understandable/not boring to you, try on a smaller chunk before processing everything.)
- Effect -> Truncate Silence. (don't remember what settings I used, but to your taste.)
Then manually trimming out repeats, useless questions, extra stuff took some time... it was also how I studied. Then more so by playing it back and fixing my notes.
I first picked Audionote (android and ios) because typed text is time-coded, so you can skip to that part of the recording by tapping on the text.
But I ended up not really using that feature and using it as a dumb recorder and text editor. It did a good job of automatically adjusting the sound level though. (Compressor. You can also do this in Audacity.)
Also it was nice that I could have the mic (at the bottom of the iphone) pointed at the prof, and the screen turned 180 degrees facing me.
I wish there was a better tool that:
- During playback, skips pauses. (by audio level threshold.) then easily pick more areas in the recording to skip. (Please just non-destructive editing/filtering though; just build a list of times to skip during playback.)
- High quality time compression playback. Variable, even up to 3x perhaps. (without increasing the pitch like audionote.)
- AND synced the notes with the recording.
- (Even better would be for reliable voice to text, and automatic trimming/outlining... but at some point it may deter grey matter processing.)
Perhaps there are better tools now?
Perhaps it could be better by adding video, smelling, tasting, and feeling... :)
But no, just capturing the exact words, and being able to trim to what's needed helped me.
The editing/condensing the audio and text was part of the studying for me though. It made the otherwise one-way-brain-dump class a bit tactile.
Then being able to review everything quickly was helpful too.
Same for note-taking and todo lists+organising (I have smart phone always on me, but small notebook that's my todo list). I tried and failed with dozens of electronic organisers, apps and so forth.
I've only ever seen anecdotal ideas as to why this is so. I'd be fascinated to see some study into why. Is it a more manual process, does it involve more brain regions, does it interface with memory differently?
I always took notes on paper, even though I never even read them. I have trouble sitting still and get bored and distracted very easily, so having something to do with my hands helped me pay attention in university. Doing the same on a computer would mean I would tab into something else and get distracted.
Note taking is similar, if I write something on a piece of paper on my desk, when I get fidgety and move around I'm going to see it. If I wrote it on my computer, it'd be buried and forgotten behind my 20 browser tabs, mail client, editor windows, terminals, etc, and that's if I remembered to open it the next day.
Having a whiteboard on my desk made me way more productive at work. So I would think the reasoning is less deep, it's more that there's less distraction on paper than on a computer.
Last year I tried some Ritalin I'd been given so I could understand the effect. What I found was that it gives me a sensation that is similar to when I'm in flow. But - for me - it feels plastic. I found it to be inferior to normal flow and I felt less in control than with normal flow. That might improve with exposure.
I can see where Ritalin would be useful if you needed to get to flow on-demand. A back-door I use for this - write a throw-away dear-diary whinge about why I can't get started. The obstacle is a feeling - so I name that. Then I look for a source of it. This is generally a technical problem that's energy-intensive to load into my mind. So I write about the complications that make me see it as energy-intensive. By then it's started. [I've mentioned this before on hn and apologise if I get boring]
What I have noticed is that when you take notes you're slower with writing something down compared to when you type it up. This basically means that there's a bigger chance that whatever you write down gets remembered since you're repeating it to yourself more often.
I don't think it explains the whole story though. I'd be interested to see if fairly slow typers (as in: typing as fast as writers do with their pens) are better notetakers as well compared to fast typers.
I think more "picture thinking" is involed while typing seems to be more like speech (linear).
Maybe this just stems from the fact that you learn to write manually and learn to type much later in life.
2. The longer you think about something the more permanent of a memory it becomes.
You can type much faster, yes, but you can't easily draw. Especially for math, engineering, science type class you really need to be able to quickly copy down diagrams, graphs, equations, etc that aren't always easily entered into a text editor. For me those always helped understanding much better than trying to describe the same concept in words.
Even the guy who used a Windows tablet with Onenote didn't actually use it much... and now that I have a Surface for work, I hardly use it as a tablet, I just carry a notebook with me.
You can also view page visit statistics for how many visits the site got in relation to each exam.
Finally, since we're talking about grades, here are all of my grades from university:
And we liked it!
In case anyone wonders, it's probably this study:
It's paywalled, so...
It doesn't strike me as an incredibly powerful study. I see no indication that it has been independently replicated. Usually these kinds of studies shouldn't be trusted unless you have a bunch of them and can do a metaanalysis.
But... I started learning to write at 3 years old and I started learning to touch-type at 16 years old. I wonder if a more native typist would not need to split their attention in the same way.
I've had the frustrating experience of trying to influence the way classes were being taught in my daughter's lower school (grades Pre-kinder through 8th). I tried to prevent the early introduction of tablet/laptops into the school, but the whole industry built up around selling teaching systems to schools has been very successful in convincing teachers and school administrators that more money spent on technology will produce better educational results.
How often do you review your notes for a topic? It probably varies between subjects, but I bet the answer is that once you take notes once most people never review their notes. This is probably more the case for studying done on your own and outside of a school setting because you don't get tested on those topics as much. I guess thats not as effective, but it probably works for most topics given that we all usually have limited time.
And, are the notes concise versions of the information (like pegs in a memory system to find the real information) or copies of the information entirely so you don't need to refer to the original anymore? I wonder if with computers the fact that you don't need to copy information form a book to avoid carrying it thanks to PDFs and Kindles has made natural habits that happened before unnatural. Why copy everything when it's right there? Why not just copy and paste it? "Thats what I would have written, it's so much easier if I just copy and paste it."
It's kind of like with programming books, esp the intro ones, which always offer the code but tell the reader to please type out all the code.
So maybe when we teach those like myself with poor study skills we should explain: Use pen/paper because you can express more, you will probably not read this later so using pen/paper will help you remember more given that, copying information isn't bad (Even if it's duplicate thanks to computers) because it helps that retention factor with information that prior to it being on computers would have been smart to take notes on.
I have also finally accepted that digital forms do not work as well for reading or notes when learning new topics. Our brains and systems of learning simply operate better with pen/paper much to my extreme distaste. (I have a strong hatred of paper. Ever since I was younger.)
I really thought I would miss some things by writing, but that was very seldom the case.
I'm a big fan of writing notes during a lecture and then typing them up after class.
Worse, the few that dared typing everything in LaTeX and share it to the rest of the class flunked their years.
On a side note, there is a handwriting organization (http://www.chirography.org/) that really inspired me to start writing more with pen/pencil/markers/etc instead of digital counterpart. What struck me the most was the image of an old postcard inviting a friend for a drink. It felt so personal and memorable, compared to a quick text message or an email.
She also has a brief TED talk on the subject. https://www.ted.com/talks/sunni_brown?language=en
Before I used to put everything on a private wiki, but I found it makes it hard to maintain an overview, and the information often gets stale and unmaintained very rapidly.
It's frustrating, because I'd like it all searchable etc., so I keep looking for a digital workflow that is good enough to replace how I work with the paper notes, but I keep going back to paper regularly.
While many other laptop students seem to simply try to type down everything the professor says, I still use the same method as when I wrote by hand: filter out what's non-important. When comparing notes, I've seen fellow students go as far as writing down jokes and anecdotes told by professors…
Looking back, it never occurred to me that notes written without comprehension were unlikely to be good. Yet without notes the finer, unofficial details of the exam syllabus would not be recorded.
What a waste of time and effort and human potential to have hundreds of bright young minds, sitting for hours just to catch details that could have been written down years ago in a shared textbook and tested on a shared exam. Across the globe this must squander centuries of human progress.
The people with their notebooks open, and pens in hand, are usually in the first few rows. I've never seen someone handwriting notes at the back of the class.
But I just think it depends on the class.
I myself would never use a laptop during lectures, too distracting. Also it would feel like I'm disrespecting the professor. I don't like to talk too people who are practically ignoring me. At least one professor feels the same way, since he banned laptops.
I agree though I'll almost never have my laptop out during a lecture. The one exception is if we're going over sample code, in which case it helps me a lot to play around with it as we go through it. (that being said I believe going through sample code is actually a pretty inefficient way to learn programming)
I also feel that its a lot easier and smoother to write notes on paper, You can really structure your notes how you want without clicking everywhere.
My personal preference is working through proofs and problems on my own and being able to pause lectures. Sure it takes an extra 30 minutes, but it saves hours of time later when I don't understand what I'm doing.
"Laptop users instead took notes by rote, taking down what they heard almost word for word."
This would explain why they're adhering to Betteridge's law of headlines: "Can Handwriting Make You Smarter?"
Intellectual dishonesty at its best.
I've taken two classes per term during the last year. In one class, I've made a point to only use traditional textbooks and handwritten notes, and in the other class, I've gone all digital.
Here were my results:
In all classes, I received As (I have a 4.0 GPA), so there wasn't really a difference there. However, my digital classes were a lot easier for me. I was able to organize my notes better, use Flashcard Hero to memorize my notes, and listen to my textbooks in the car while I drove. In the all-paper classes, it took me longer to read my assignments, longer to write out my notes, and I felt like I missed a lot while I was note-taking. I never used my paper notes after I wrote them, because they were disorganized and hard to read.
Perhaps the situation is different for others, but for me, my grades were the same, but the digital options were faster, easier, and better able to fit into more aspects of my life.
The top 1% of performers will be those who take notes by computer. Why? Because if you are strategic, using a spreadsheet with tags you can optimize note taking of anything. Even if the human brain memorizes better when taking notes by hand, an optimal system that involves sorting, etc, will outperform.
So optimal system for a better grade may be writing it by hand.
Optimal performance for producing a good course reference could be a spread sheet with tags erc