Typed Notes

Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Students type their lecture notes nowadays, but transcribing a lecture isn’t the best way to learn the material:

Generally, people who take class notes on a laptop do take more notes and can more easily keep up with the pace of a lecture than people scribbling with a pen or pencil, researchers have found. College students typically type lecture notes at a rate of about 33 words a minute. People trying to write it down manage about 22 words a minute.

In the short run, it pays off. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis in 2012 found that laptop note-takers tested immediately after a class could recall more of a lecture and performed slightly better than their pen-pushing classmates when tested on facts presented in class. They reported their experiments with 80 students in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Any advantage, though, is temporary. After just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’ve transcribed, several studies said. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so superficial.

In contrast, those who took notes by hand could remember the lecture material longer and had a better grip on concepts presented in class, even a week later. The process of taking them down encoded the information more deeply in memory, experts said. Longhand notes also were better for review because they’re more organized.


Those who wrote out their notes longhand took down fewer words, but appeared to think more intensely about the material as they wrote, and digested what they heard more thoroughly, the researchers reported in Psychological Science. “All of that effort helps you learn,” said Dr. Oppenheimer.

Laptop users instead took notes by rote, taking down what they heard almost word for word.


  1. Graham says:

    I’ve always wondered how students take lecture notes on laptops.- I could never have hoped to do that quickly enough, even without my habit of going backward during the lecture to amend earlier notes in light of newly heard information.

    I still can’t believe people now type faster than they can write under that kind of pressure. I would quickly have so many typos I could not understand the notes.

    Now, of course, I mainly wonder which method would cause crippling neuromuscular pain the fastest and think professors should provide notes or topic plans afterward as aide-memoires. I don’t want to reject the lecture model, but it should be an exercising in listening and absorbing, not notetaking.

    Also, I am reminded of a joke current circa 1995:

    A German professor enters a lecture hall. The students snap to attention and in unison state, “guten morgen, Herr Doktor Professor”.

    A French professor enters a lecture hall. The students remain seated but greet the professor with, “Bonjour, M. le Professeur.”

    An American professor enters a lecture hall and a couple of students, leaning back in their chairs or over the desks mumble, “’mornin’, prof”.

    A Canadian professor enters a lecture hall and all students immediately begin furiously taking notes.

    It rings true with this former Canadian student. Although I don’t know if those other stereotypes hold up any more. The Germans and the French would probably declare revolution and the Americans complain that the professor’s entry to the hall was somehow fascist-style and had triggered them all at once.

  2. Bill says:

    I’ve read that handwritten note taking is best in many different articles, and I agree with it.

    This Kickstarter project might be of interest to those who believe in the handwritten word.

  3. Grasspunk says:

    What is the purpose of taking notes these days? Isn’t everything online now? Maybe the lecture is seen as a way to get student to copy out notes as an inefficient way of learning.

    The truly hard classes (all two of them) I took no notes for. You had to follow the reasoning closely and try to work out the next step for yourself and if you were writing notes you weren’t giving the understanding full attention.

  4. Rollory says:

    The purpose of taking written notes is that the act of writing activates parts of the brain that contribute to retaining the information, and would not be activated otherwise. That’s the whole point of the article.

    It’s pretty easy to verify experimentally, too. Test yourself with a few things. Reading stuff on blogs is an excellent example: you read something interesting, then a few weeks later, you absolutely can not bring to mind the specifics anymore. Writing it down by hand makes it much easier to remember. Reading material printed on a physical page also, but it’s a slightly different effect in my experience – doing both helps more than either one alone.

    Of course people who say this get dismissed as old fuddy-duddies by the hip young kids. Same ones who get mildly insulted when asked for directions and think everybody should have a smartphone and just type addresses into google. The idea that certain aspects of mental ability need to be trained and benefit from training and benefit other aspects of life is absolutely outside the realm of imagination for them.

  5. Grasspunk says:

    I’m curious since I went to school in Australia: At fancy US universities with a high bar of entry do they force you to handwrite or type notes from the lecture? Like do you go through all that effort to get into MIT Math (for example) and then spend lectures scrambling to write notes?

    I’d be interested to know what universities/courses would be more likely to make you do this.

  6. Grasspunk says:

    Well, that was easy enough to go and look up for myself.

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