Is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?

Mr Richard Dobrenov | Deputy Principal & Head of Senior School

Whilst the age of technology has increased our ability to communicate quickly and more efficiently, studies are showing that the use of laptops solely to take notes in classes and lectures may actually be impairing student learning, resulting in shallower levels of processing.  As we embark upon the studying of new subjects particularly in Year 10, there is value in reflecting upon our current practices. A recent research article by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) entitled, The Pen is Mightier Than The Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking, identifies three studies that reached the conclusion that lower performances on conceptual questions were experienced by those who took notes on laptops as opposed to those students who took notes in the traditional long hand way.  They discovered an increased tendency in students on laptops who attempted to transcribe verbatim rather than those students who processed the information and reframed it in their own words, longhand.

A major contributing factor to the study’s findings was the capacity of laptops to distract the user and invite multi-tasking.  Random internet browsing was a major impairment on performance and even when the distractions are controlled laptop use might impair student performance around the manner and quality of note-taking.  Substantial data already exists on the general effectiveness of taking notes by longhand through an encoding process, which suggests that the act of taking notes improves both learning and retention.   We already know that the possession of notes for future review increases retention and impacts academic outcomes.

There are two forms of note-taking, generative (summarising, paraphrasing and concept mapping); and non-generative, (where the person copies verbatim).   The study found that Verbatim note taking generally suggests shallow cognitive processing, as opposed to generative note-taking where the student first processes information and then encodes it into their own words.  Verbatim note taking predicts poor performance as opposed to non-verbatim, especially on conceptual and integrative items.

This becomes particularly relevant to laptop usage, because today, most students can type significantly faster than they can write. As a result, typing may impair the benefits of encoding that were experienced in the past with handwritten note-taking.  Certainly, typing is better for transcribing but not for general note-taking, which is still the mainstay of academia.

It still seems that synthesising and summarising content rather than verbatim copying produces improved educational outcomes.  For this reason, note-taking on laptops should still be viewed with a healthy dose of caution in the ever-changing landscape of education.