Reference: Artz, B., Johnson, M., Robson, D., & Taengnoi, S. (2020). Taking notes in the digital age: Evidence from classroom random control trials. The Journal of Economic Education, 51(2), 103-115.
Imagine you’re a freshman on your first day of college. You walk into a giant lecture hall, filled with hundreds of students. Some students opt to fill the first rows, while others sit as far as they can be from the professor and the powerpoint. The professor walks through the syllabus. You read the following statement in bold letters: “No computers allowed during class. No exceptions.” The professor explains that computers are bad for notetaking, and that students who handwrite notes perform better on class exams. But is that true? The answer is not as simple as the professor would have you think.
Prior Research on Note-Taking
Your professor was likely referring to a 2014 article by Mueller and Oppenheimer, which found that those who took notes on a computer performed worse on conceptual questions than those who hand wrote their notes. The actual methodology of that experiment, though, makes its generalizability to the above situation unclear. For instance, the relevant information in the experiment was presented in five minute “lectures,” much shorter than traditional college lectures. In addition, tests of recall were administered 30 minutes after the “lecture,” again unlike what typically occurs in a college setting where notes are often utilized weeks or months later in preparing for exams. Moreover, a recent replication failed to find the same effects (see our writeup of the study here), so what is really happening?
The effects of note taking on test performance
How does whether students type notes or handwrite notes relate to test performance? Answering this question may be complicated, as students differ from one another in many ways that may influence how they take notes. For instance, students who are easily distracted may be more likely to take notes on a computer. Thus, it may be students’ higher levels of distractibility that causes poorer performance, and not their actual note-taking method.
To investigate the effects of note-taking method on test performance, Artz et al. (2020) recruited 230 students enrolled in a course entitled Principles of Microeconomics at a large midwest U.S. university. On the first day of class, students filled out a questionnaire on their note taking preferences. Each semester included two special guest lectures. Students were randomly assigned to either type their notes on a computer or hand write their notes for the first guest lecture (and switched methods for the second). Note that this method allowed the researchers to attribute any performance differences to the note-taking method used rather than other student characteristics.
Students were made aware that material covered in the guest lectures would be on future quizzes and exams, thus impacting their final course grade. There were 12 relevant test questions that assessed memory for lecture content.
What did they find?
Student accuracy on the quiz and exam was compared by condition and attendance (whether they attended the lecture at which the content was reviewed). Those who attended the special lecture scored higher overall than those who did not attend the guest lectures. In addition, those who typed their notes scored lower overall, but not significantly. The difference between note taking conditions amounts to a difference of 1 to 2% – too small to be practically significant.
Test scores were similar for students taking notes on the computer vs. on paper.
So what does this mean? Directions for future research
Past research on the effect of typing notes on a computer on learning did not accurately represent a typical classroom–it was focused on potential encoding effects of note taking, but not what happens after you leave the classroom (e.g., reviewing notes). In comparison, when in an actual classroom, the current findings suggest that taking notes on computers does not significantly impact performance (though they trend that way). Moreover, attendance and note-taking strategies explain very little variation in performance. Other variables are at play; students’ motivation or metacognition influence learning, for instance. More research in realistic classroom contexts is needed, especially as computers become more and more common in classrooms. With COVID-19, not only were students likely taking notes on computers, but they were attending class on computers. Did this change how students take notes?
Students: You can use computers!
A meta-analysis just published (when researchers look across studies on a similar topic) suggests that taking notes on a computer (without distractions) is similar in learning outcomes to taking notes by hand. Computers for note taking in classrooms are not inherently bad for learning. You may want to try hand writing notes and typing notes on a computer, and see which you prefer. Maybe your handwriting cannot keep up with what the professor is saying, or maybe you find using computers (e.g., the internet) distracting. Use this information to your advantage to improve your learning outcomes. Think about what your teacher is saying–do not just write exactly what they are saying! Whatever method you choose, find ways to stay actively engaged during the lecture.
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