Taking notes by hand is better than writing them on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term, a new study has found.
"Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended - and not for buying things on Amazon during class - they may still be harming academic performance," said Pam Mueller of Princeton University, lead author of the study.
Mueller and researcher Daniel Oppenheimer, who is now at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), conducted a series of studies to investigate whether their intuitions about laptop and longhand note-taking were true.
In the first study, 65 college students watched one of five TED Talks covering topics that were interesting but not common knowledge.
The students, who watched the talks in small groups, were either given laptops (disconnected from Internet) or notebooks, and were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes.
The students then completed three distractor tasks, including a taxing working memory task. A full 30 minutes later, they had to answer factual-recall questions based on the lecture they had watched.
The results showed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions.
The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand.
Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is cancelled out by "mindless transcription."
"It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently," researchers said.
Surprisingly, the researchers saw similar results even when they explicitly instructed the students to avoid taking verbatim notes, suggesting that the urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome.
Researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later when participants were given a chance to review their notes before taking the recall test.
Once again, the amount of verbatim overlap was associated with worse performance on conceptual items.
The findings are published in the journal Psychological Science.