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Leave Your Laptop at Home: Taking Notes by Hand Is Better

Even though computers may make note-taking more efficient, you'll get far more value from notes you write by hand. Here's why.

By
Stever Robbins
Episode #317

Note-taking!

I just love note-taking! I get to use a Pentel G-Tec-C .28mm pen, or a Pilot G–2 07 pen with blue-black ink and carefully take notes in a Moleskine large, notebook. It’s heaven!

Kids today—and by kids I mean anyone who owns an electronic device—like to take notes on laptops, smartphones, or tablets. The worst ones—and I’m sure you don’t fall into this category—don’t take notes at all. They just sit there…vaguely motionless…as if they’re memorizing. Then they forget 95% of what happened and need to be walked through again it later. However, what those wacky kids don’t know, will hurt them.

The truth is that taking notes electronically is dramatically worse than taking notes by hand!.

Take Notes by Hand

For years, I thought I was just being a fuddy-duddy because my brain felt happier with manual note-taking. But no, I’m vindicated at last! Recent research into memory and note-taking backs me up 100%.

Experimenters divided students into two groups. Half took notes longhand, while half took notes on laptops. The students were then tested on the material they had taken notes on. The results? Both groups remembered facts. But when it came to ideas, the students who took longhand notes had learned the material better than the students who typed their notes.

Even With Review, Laptops Fail

What’s weird is that students who were typing their notes took much more complete notes than the students who were taking notes by hand. Objectively, the computerized notes had more information. So they should have worked better, right?

The experimenters realized that they had tested immediate learning. Perhaps, they thought, the more complete laptop notes would be better for reviewing later on, after the initial learning was in the past. They did the experiment again, this time having students review their notes a week later. Astonishingly, the students with handwritten notes still did significantly better when studying, even though their notes were less complete compared to the laptop students.

Writing Can Use Symbols and Drawings

The researchers don’t know why hand-written notes work so much better, but I have some guesses. For one, in hand-written notes, you aren’t limited to words. You can use arrows, or circle important things, or draw little unicorns with hearts shimmering all around their delicate hooves. Pictures and symbols activate your brain differently than text, engaging more of it in learning.

Speaking of brain activation, the act of writing something longhand stimulates much more of the brain than typing. Typing involves moving a few fingers, only a little. Longhand writing actually requires much more muscular control, making the letter shapes properly, noting where the information is on the page, and so on. All those subtle factors get encoded in memory and help recall later on.

Draw little unicorns to stimulate your brain.

With physical books, the image of the pages, the size of the book, the book cover, and the position of information on the page all seem to be part of how the book gets remembered. Current research suggests that learning and retention is much less with ebooks because all those unconscious cues aren’t available to be encoded into memory.

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About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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