Longhand vs. Laptop Note Taking—a Good Reason to Ban Laptops from Classrooms?

Many faculty fret over students’ in-class use of computers—ostensibly there for note taking, but often also used for distracting e-mail, messaging, and checking social media.  A soon-to-be-published study by Pam Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel Oppenheimer (UCLA) offers faculty an additional justification for asking students not to use computers. 

In three experiments, they gave students either a laptop or a notebook and invited them to take notes on a lecture (a TED lecture in two of the studies).  Later, when they tested their memory for the lecture content, they found no difference in recall of factual information.  But taking notes in longhand, which required participants to summarize content in their own words, led to better performance on conceptual-application questions. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard” is the apt title for their article, to appear in Psychological Science.

“Participants using laptops were more inclined to take verbatim notes,” explained Mueller and Oppenheimer.  Better to synthesize and summarize, they conclude:  “laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

 For one of my colleagues, this study, combined with the unwanted distractions of in-class computer use, inspires a new class policy:  for better learning, no computer use in class.