Duly Noted: The Difference Between Laptops and Pen & Paper


In April of 2014, Pam Mueller and Dan Oppenheimer struck psychology gold with their cleverly titled article, “The Pen is Mightier than the Laptop: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking.”1

No psychology article that I know of has gotten so much play: in newspaper articles, in teacherly blogs, in faculty room debates.

Heck, it shows up regularly on my Facebook feed, as my exasperated college professor friends vow to ban laptops from their classrooms. That prohibition will benefit students! Science says so!

Among the article’s many strengths: it confirms what we knew all along. The way we did things back in the day—that way was better. (If you’re so inclined, you might now add nostalgic words about high cotton paper positively drinking the ink from a fountain pen…)

More or Less Fidelity

Mueller and Oppenheimer picked a research question with two impressive qualities: teachers agree that it’s a really important inquiry, and it’s relatively easy to investigate.

So, the research team had two groups of students watch a lecture. One group took handwritten notes; the second group took laptop notes. On a later test, which group remembered more?

Being careful researchers, Mueller and Oppenheimer went beyond “laptop notes” and “handwritten notes” to investigate two other potentially important variables.

First: the number of words that students wrote. Did the students who wrote fewer words score higher on the ultimate test? Or, the students who wrote more words?

Let’s imagine the professor says this:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

A student could write lots of words:

  • Four score and seven years ago
  • Fathers brought forth new nation
  • Conceived in liberty
  • Dedicated to prop: all men equal

Or, relatively few words:

  • Four score and seven
  • New nation
  • Liberty
  • Equality

The second variable: fidelity to the lecturer’s words.

A student could copy down those words verbatim:

  • Four score and seven years ago
  • Fathers brought forth new nation
  • Conceived in liberty
  • Dedicated to prop: all men equal

Or, a student could deliberately put those ideas into her own words

  • 87 years ago
  • Revolutionary war created US
  • Two goals; free people, equal people
  • Might freedom conflict with equality?

Looking at all these variables—laptops vs. notebooks, number of words, and fidelity of notes—Mueller and Oppenheimer reached three conclusions.

a) The Big Reveal: hand-writers remembered more than laptop note-takers. When it comes to classroom note-taking, in the authors’ words: “the pen is mightier than the laptop.”

b) The number of words does matter. Students who wrote MORE words remembered more information than those who wrote FEWER words.

c) The fidelity of notes does matter. Students who REWORDED their notes remembered more information than those who took down the speaker’s words VERBATIM.

These conclusions align with our preconceptions. After all, a) OF COURSE handwritten notes are better. And, b+c) students who write more words, and write more of their own words, have devoted more mental energy to processing the ideas in the lecture. As we all know, more mental processing = more learning.

Laptops with Limits

These conclusions, however, create a bit of a puzzle. Handwriting takes more time and physical coordination than does typing, so laptop note-takers can write more words than hand-writers. If more words = more learning, why do the wordy laptop note-takers fall short of the relatively taciturn hand-writers on the final test?

Here we arrive at Mueller and Oppenheimer’s key finding: laptop note takers write more words, but they use this excess word capacity to write more VERBATIM words. Because hand-writers simply can’t write down everything the lecturer says, they have to REWORD the ideas in the lecture. This rewording leads to more cognitive effort, and that cognitive effort leads to more learning.

In other words, technology steers note-takers in meaningful directions. Those who use paper-and-pencil technologies write slowly, and therefore must reword their notes. Those who use laptop technologies write quickly, and therefore take down the speaker’s words verbatim. This second choice might seem wiser, but in fact reduces processing and thus undermines long-term learning.

Replacing evil with virtue

Being careful researchers, Mueller and Oppenheimer didn’t stop here. Instead, they asked a crucial question: can laptop note-takers learn to replace verbatim notes with reworded notes? Could they, in other words, use their capacity to write more words for good, rather than for evil?

To answer this question, they repeated their study, and they gave laptop note takers stern instructions: “People who take class notes on laptops … tend to transcribe what they’re hearing without thinking about it much. Please try not to do this as you take notes today. Take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for word what the speaker is saying”.

The result? Nothing changed. Defying these admirably clear instructions, laptop note-takers took verbatim notes, and remembered less than the hand-writers, who used their own words.

So, there you have it. Laptop note-takers can’t be retrained to reword their notes. Because hand-writers do reword their notes, the pen is mightier than the laptop…

Case Closed.

Case Reopened?

Let’s try an analogy here. When I tell my students how to subordinate a quotation in a participial phrase, they often try and fail. When they try and fail, I conclude that they can’t do it, and so I stop asking them to subordinate quotations in participial phrases. In brief, I give up. Isn’t that what you do?

Well, of course not. We’re teachers. When we show our students how to do something, they ALWAYS fail the first time. And, most likely, several more times. For this reason, we naturally build in time for students to practice. Learning any meaningful skill requires structured repetition. Obviously.

And yet, Mueller and Oppenheimer insist just the opposite. You can hear them cry: “Those laptop note-takers really should have used their own words BECAUSE WE EXPLICITLY TOLD THEM TO.”

Once. You told them to, once.

Did they get to practice? No. Did you tell them why? Not really. And: you’re surprised they didn’t change a behavior they’ve been practicing since they first started taking notes on laptops? Really?

A New Hypothesis

Let’s combine our experience as teachers with Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research.

Teacherly wisdom shows that we can train students to learn new skills: how to multiply fractions, how to use the subjunctive, how to throw a knuckleball. It seems highly likely that we can train laptop note takers to reword their notes. This training might take some time. The students’ progress probably won’t be constant. But, they can learn to do it.

After all: hand-writers have learned to reword their notes, so it’s hard to understand why laptop note-takers can’t.

If students succeed in this project, then they will end up with an awesome classroom superpower: the ability to write more words AND reworded words. With this superpower, they should remember even more than the hand-writers, who write fewer words that are reworded words. This likelihood, in fact, flows directly from Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research.

Under the right circumstances, the laptop just might defeat the pen.

Mind you: the study to test this hypothesis has not—to my knowledge—been done. But the hypothesis is, I think, the best interpretation of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research.

Some Final Thoughts

  1. I should admit my own biases here. I take laptop notes. In fact, I’m a touch typist. I’m even a touch typist on the Dvořak keyboard. Like Liam Neeson, I’ve put a lot of hours into learning a particular set of skills. I’d be sad to learn those skills were weakening, not strengthening, my learning.
  2. Wise teachers often object that laptops introduce many other sources of potential distraction: Insta-snap-face-chat-gram, or email, or—heaven help us—Netflix. This objection is obviously true; in fact, Faria Sana has done impressive research into the power of these distractions.2 However, this objection doesn’t focus on Mueller and Oppenheimer’s underlying claim: the very technology that we use to take notes shapes their helpfulness. If laptop notes can truly boost learning more than hand-written notes, then we should help our students get those benefits without losing them to YouTube distractions.
  3. Even if Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study were done perfectly, teachers should still be cautious about adopting its conclusions. As you have read many times in this blog, we should look at bodies of research, not only at individual studies.
  4. The collaboration between psychology and education should be a conversation, not a lecture. When psychologists say “do this,” teachers should a) look hard at the research that led to that guidance, and b) use our own experience to ask hard questions. In other words: we should not take verbatim notes when psychologists speak—we should reword and reconsider as we go.
  5. We should ask those hard questions even when—perhaps especially when—psychology research seems to confirm beliefs that we have held all along. If we’ve always known that handwritten notes are best, then we should be thoughtfully skeptical of research that tells us what we want to hear. Me included.

Reference & Further Reading

  1. Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 0956797614524581. [Paper]
  2. Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, 24-31. [Paper]
category: L&B Blog

One Response to Duly Noted: The Difference Between Laptops and Pen & Paper

  1. Susan Bickford says:

    Having two nephews who are highly intelligent and thoughtful human beings who both happen to be dysgraphic, I appreciate the more nuanced look at the conclusions. Neither of them can take notes by hand that capture the essence of a lecture or talk in depth because they are defeated by the pencil to paper connection. They have used alpha smarts and laptops in order to survive and thrive in both K-12 education and their successful college careers.
    Beware making the tool the evil or beneficent item.

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