There’s No Polite Way to Say “I Told You So”

Back in 2014, Pam Mueller and Dan Oppenheimer made headlines with their wittily titled study “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard.”

In that study, they found that students learn more from taking handwritten notes during a lecture than from laptop notes. Their conclusions spawned a thousand gloating posts. And (I don’t doubt) a multitude of well-intentioned anti-laptop policies.

Since I first read the study, I’ve been shouting that it’s conclusions simply don’t hold up.

Why?

Because M&O’s conclusions hold water only if you believe students can’t learn new things.

(That’s a very strange belief for teachers to have.)

If you believe that students can learn new things, then you believe that they can learn to take laptop notes correctly.

(“Correctly” = “rewriting the lecture’s main points in your own words; don’t just transcribe verbatim”)

If they do that, then this famous study actually suggests laptop notes will enhance learning, not detract from it.

You can find a summary of my argument — and its limitations — here.

Today’s News

Scholars have recently published an attempt at replication of Mueller & Oppenheimer’s study.

The results? Not much.

In the quiet language of research, they conclude:

“Based on the present outcomes and other available evidence, concluding which method [handwriting or laptops] is superior for improving the functions of note-taking seems premature.”

Not so much with the mighty pen.

By the way: a study from 2018 also concluded that — except in special circumstances — it just didn’t make much difference which method students use.

Why I Care

Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not an ardent advocate of laptop notes. Or, for that matter, of handwritten notes.

I advocate for teachers making classroom decisions informed by good research.

In this case, the Mueller and Oppenheimer study contains a perfectly obvious flaw. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t think a) that students can learn good note-taking skills, and b) that if they do, the study’s conclusions make no sense.

And yet, very few people have time to dig into research methodology. As a result, this one study had confirmed many teachers in their beliefs that technology harms learning during note-taking.

That statement might be true. It might be false. But this one study doesn’t give us good data to answer the question.

As a result, teachers might be taking laptops away from students who would learn more if they got to use them.

In brief: bad research harms learning.

I hope that this most recent study encourages teachers to rethink our classroom practices.

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