How Best to Take Notes: A Public Service Announcement


The school year is beginning, and so you’re certainly seeing many (MANY) articles about the debate over laptop notes vs. handwritten notes.

If your research stream is anything like mine, most of the articles you see assert that handwriting is superior to laptops for note-taking.

And, most of those articles cite Mueller and Oppenheimer’s blockbuster study, arguing–as its witty title avers–“the pen is mightier than the keyboard.”

Here’s my advice: don’t believe it.

More substantively: it’s possible that the pen is mightier than the keyboard. However, Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study supports that conclusion only if you believe that students can’t learn new things.

(Of course, that would be a very odd belief for a teacher to have.)

If you believe that students can learn new things, then this widely cited study suggests that laptop notes ought to lead to more learning than handwritten notes.

After all, a student who has practiced correct laptop note-taking can a) write more words than a student who takes notes by hand, and b) take notes in her own words just as well as a student who takes notes by hand.

Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research clearly suggests that a) + b) ought to lead to more learning.

The details of this argument get tricky; I lay them out in this post.


FIRST: I am not saying that I know laptop notes to be superior to handwritten notes.

I am saying that the study most often used to champion handwritten notes simply does not support its own conclusion. If you believe students can learn new things, then Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research suggests that laptop notes ought to lead to more learning.

A study testing my hypothesis has not–as far as I know–been done.

SECOND: you might reasonably say that students taking notes on laptops will be distracted by the interwebs. For that reason, handwritten notes will be superior.

I very much share this concern. (In fact, Faria Sana’s research shows that laptop multitasking distracts not only the multitasker, but also the person sitting behind the multitasker–a serious problem in lecture halls.)

However, multitasking is a separate question–not one addressed by Mueller and Oppenheimer.

The narrow question is: do non-multitasking laptop note-takers learn more than non-multitasking handwritten note-takers?

If the answer to that question is “yes,” then we should train laptop note-takers a) to reword the teacher’s lecture–not simply to write it down verbatim, and b) to unplug from the interwebs.

This combination will certainly be difficult to achieve. But, it might be the very best combination for learning.


The laptops-vs.-handwriting debate stirs up a remarkable degree of fervor–more than I would expect from a fairly narrow and technical question.

I suspect that this debate is in fact a proxy war between those who think we should use more technology in schools (who favor laptop notes) and those who think we already use too much technology in schools (who favor handwriting).  That is: we’re not so much concerned with note-taking specifically as we are with technology in general.

That’s an important conversation to have. In fact, it’s central to the November Learning and the Brain Conference.

At the same time, let’s be sure that our general views on technology don’t obscure the answer to a precise, researchable question. If students learn more by taking notes on laptops, let’s find that out with well-designed research studies and then guide them well.


tags: / category: L&B Blog

3 Responses to How Best to Take Notes: A Public Service Announcement

  1. Stephanie Beazley says:

    I have been teaching for 33 yrs. starting First grade through 8th grade. I firmly believe in your statement re: non-multitasking laptop notetakers learning more than non-multitasking…….than hand written notetakers. Teaching as a learning specialist, one of my most challenging lessons was note taking – using paraphrasing, highlighting key words etc. goal being not to notetake verbatim. I believe this is a developmental skill seeming to be somewhat accomplished by grade 7-8, however the concept should be introduced in writing as early as first grade ( they love to use highlighters!) As an example I’m only suggesting the teacher dictate a single sentence and have the student verbally repeat what she/he heard the teacher say. I think a shortened spoken version would come naturally thus could be translated into a briefly written “note.” Highlighting could be used during guided reading lessons with emphasis on key words. Hope your hypothesis becomes a study at some point.

  2. polly mayer says:

    What about the idea/research that the motoric act of writing, and the slowed down nature of writing vs. keyboarding, helps to solidify or “stick” concepts in a person’s memory?

    • Andrew Watson says:

      [A response to Polly Mayer’s comment.]

      Both these ideas seem wholly plausible. However, they’re not what Mueller and Oppenheimer claim. The study that I’m suggesting–in which students are taught to reword notes on laptops, not just told to do so–would help answer this question.

      For example: let’s imagine such a study were done. We might gather data showing that laptop users (who take reworded notes, and write more words) do BETTER on the test than handwriters (who also take reworded notes, but write fewer words). That result would suggest that the motoric act of handwriting isn’t the key variable.

      If, however, we gather data showing that laptop users (who take reworded notes, and write more words) do WORSE on the test than handwriters (who take reworded notes, but write fewer word), then we would learn a) that the motoric act might well be important, and b) that M&O were wrong to focus on the importance of writing more/reworded words.

      My point is not that I KNOW whether handwriting or keyboarding leads to more learning. My point is that the most famous, most-often-cited study arguing in favor of handwriting overlooks an essential point about student behavior: they can–and regularly do–learn to do new things.

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