Tell Your College Students to Pull Out the Old Pen and Paper, Studies Find

You may want to tell your college students to put their laptops away during class lectures. It appears the “old way” of taking handwritten notes in class trumps typing notes into your laptop. If you’d like to know why, a study by researchers Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that taking notes by hand wins out for several reasons.

Taking notes by hand offers you the opportunity to write key points as you listen, which engages active listening in students. Students are more selective and write down main ideas, and they highlight and circle things that seem to be the most important. The opposite was true with those taking notes on the laptops; they often wrote longer sentences, trying to capture every word that was spoken instead of listening for those key points and adding their own notes to it.

Students often referred back to their handwritten notes and were able to decipher why they wrote the key points and what made them important to know–often using their own shorthand and indicators as to why the information was important. On laptops, the same was not true, as more full sentence notes were taken. Taking handwritten notes also helps organize the material for students and give them a starting point for studying.

As a college professor, I can tell you from experience that I see students take notes in class by hand and on laptops. I can also tell you that students on laptops are also checking their email, texting, and surfing the internet simultaneously in class. These students can miss key points and information regarding assignments and tests. They also lack eye contact and engagement with the professor. Students who take handwritten notes — and students who are good at taking handwritten notes — are often more engaged in class, ask more questions, are better prepared, do better on tests and assignments, and contribute during discussions of course material.

As our spring semester is about to begin, I would urge students who have sat back and not taken notes because professors post their Powerpoints on Blackboard, or who rely strongly on note taking on their laptops, to give the old-fashioned way of note taking a try. It may be worth it to see what happens this term. When I was a freshman in college, my psychology teacher had written a book on study skills, and he taught us the proper way to take notes to do well on tests. I am forever grateful to the late Dr. James Furukawa of Towson University for helping me be a better prepared student and lifelong learner.


Stephanie Verni is Professor of Business Communication at Stevenson University and is the author of Inn Significant, Baseball Girl, and Beneath the Mimosa Tree. Along with her colleagues Leeanne Bell McManus and Chip Rouse, she is a co-author of Event Planning: Communicating Theory and Practice, published by Kendall-Hunt.

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