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Student note taking: Laptop or hand?

by Judith Ross-Bernstein

Looking across classrooms, it is common to see laptops open, screen lights illuminating several student faces as they take notes, fingers dancing across keyboards at breakneck speed. Other students sit alongside the glow and movement of their peers, with pen and paper poised to do the same. But how is it and how is it not the same?

The use of laptops for student note taking has drawn much research; the earliest focused on student’s susceptibility to distraction and multi-tasking. However, a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that computer note taking is less effective than hand note taking, resulting in surface processing.

With the speed of computer note taking, students are likely to write notes verbatim, copying what is said. Hand writing notes is slower, it requires reframing in their own words, which helps student to process more deeply by paraphrasing, summarizing, or concept mapping (Muller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

Preferences for student note taking among faculty can be both personal, discipline, and context specific. But student note taking stands out as one of the widely shared dilemmas on teaching students how to learn, often discussed by colleagues at the Center for Faculty Excellence. Some stand firmly on pen to paper, the hand to mind side of the coin. They say this as surely as they know they are out for a major arm twist. They see it coming, millennial students, shaking their heads, “way too old-school.”

Would it be worth taking it up with your students? Although classroom time is a precious commodity, engaging with students around the idea may prove worthwhile particularly if you have a strong feeling about note taking in your class and how it supports learning. I’ve seen faculty effectively partner with students, making explicit why they believe a particular method or strategy can support student learning.

What can that conversation look like? To prepare, students could listen to NPR Weekend Sunday edition: Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away before coming to class. It might be interesting to follow up with a jigsaw discussion with students.   To pose questions using this strategy, form a group of students per question (5 groups, see 5 suggested questions below) to interrogate their own note taking processes.

1) What course/personal connections can you make to the NPR podcast?
2) What perspectives are represented by the podcast author/ in the studies mentioned?
3) How do you typically take notes and why?
4) Describe note taking processes that best support (or do not support) your own learning?
5) How could changes in note taking support your learning?

Write one question per paper; give one to each group.  After every group has a question/paper, ask them populate the document by brainstorming and recording their responses (for 3 minutes). After three minutes, groups pass their question and answers on to the next group, round robin style. Have groups continue, 3 minutes per question, adding comments, or voting (check mark near) where they resonate with ideas. After each group has a turn with every question, debrief by returning a completed sheet to each group. Have the students summarize main points to their question. Harvest student’s summary comments while comparing/contrasting to your own strategies for note taking.  Pull a list together, a commitment to note taking processes that emerge. Set a future time to revisit the effectiveness of note taking commitments made in your class.

If you are interested in an idea that pulls note taking with your students to another level, take a look at the pedagogical strategy, Rotating Note Taker (Maier, 2016).  What Maryellen Weimer (2016) details in this Faculty Focus blog, Note Taking Strategies to Improve Learning may be worth considering.


Alrubail, R. (1/3/2015). Scaffolding Student Reflections

Doubek, J. (4/17/16) Attention, students; Put your laptops away. Weekend Edition Sunday. NPR

Maier, M. H., (2016). Rotating note taker. College Teaching, 64 (3), 148.

Muller, P. A., and Oppenheimer, D. M., (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25 (6), 1159-1168.

Penn State. Jigsaw Strategy

Click to access jigsaw.pdf

Weimer, M., (9/7/16) Note taking strategies to improve learning. Faculty Focus.

Dartmouth (2016). Notetaking, Listening, Participation. Academic Skills Center.



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