Take Notes with a Paper Notebook, But Only if You Can Write Quickly

Research in Psychological Science last spring and in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that writing notes by hand requires the listener to synthesize a lecture more effectively than laptop note-taking.  Three studies showed that testing immediately after a lecture and even a week later still saw improved retention of conceptual information when students wrote notes rather than used a laptop during a lecture. No differences were noted in factual retention.  Evaluation of the  actual notes revealed that laptop users were more likely to record the lecture verbatim, even when they were instructed to take notes selectively.  They concluded that there was a subconscious tendency to transcribe a spoken lecture when keyboarding.  Students who used paper were more likely to process, reframe and synthesize the lecture during class.

Before you run out and by a tablet with a stylus (BTW, my new Microsoft Surface 3 and it’s pen is amazing for this purpose), you might want to think about how we used to do it old school.  It is very difficult to take notes quickly while mentally synthesizing the lecture.  You have to have two skills:  fast, readable handwriting and the ability to process information and reframe it in words that are meaningful to the listener.  Teachers do a much better job at instructing children to think critically and synthesize information than they do at teaching them to write legibly and quickly.  This research suggests that they have to teach both skills.  To paraphrase the movie “Jaws”, you are gonna need a bigger boat (of skills).  Teachers need to teach cursive writing.

The fastest method of handwriting is to combine the easy cursive letters and connections such as “he”, “el”, “ff” and “er” with print letters that substitute for tricky cursive connections such as “s” and “bb”.   There are more examples, but you get the general idea.  Anyone who is fluent in writing both styles will soon blend combinations into their own pattern of faster writing.  A child who has had poor handwriting instruction, or whose teachers see no reason to use cursive, will never have the skills to write in this manner.  Children who only print will soon realize that using printing alone is slower than keyboarding.  That child will grab a laptop as soon as possible and take down every word. They have not been given a choice.

It is interesting that the researchers didn’t mention the level of legibility of note-taker’s handwriting.  It may not matter as much as the experience of critical thinking and recording thoughts on paper. That would be an interesting study.  The benefits of the process of reframing and recording synthesized material is a message to parents and teachers to reconsider the power of the pen and the pencil.


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