Is taking notes on paper better than taking notes on a computer? Y- Maybe?

Title: How Much Mightier is the Pen than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014)
Authors: Kayla Morehead, John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson
First author’s institution: Kent State University
Journal: Educational Psychology Review (2019)


You may remember the headlines about students who took notes on paper instead of a laptop remembered more  (for example, Attention Students: Put Your Laptops Away and A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop). These were the result of a study by Mueller and Oppenheimer claiming as much as well as the ideas that taking notes on a computer meant more distractions such as email and social media and that students who take notes on a computer can just copy the lecture rather than need to summarize it in order to get it all down. However, that conclusion may be premature as other studies conducted under different experimental conditions have not found the same results (such as this one and this one). The goal of today’s paper is to perform a direct replication of the Mueller and Oppenheimer study and then to extend it by also comparing the results to students who don’t take notes or take notes on eWriters such as Boogie Boards.

It probably isn’t surprising that most students take notes in the classroom and use them as a primary means to prepare for their exams. From a research purpose, note-taking serves two primary purposes: 1) improving learning by taking notes which is referred to as the encoding function of note-taking and 2) supporting effective exam preparation, which is referred to as the storage function of note-taking. The Mueller and Oppenheimer paper only looked at the first of these purposes while today’s paper examines both.

Experiment I

The researchers began by randomly assigning 193 undergraduate students to either the paper, computer, or eWriter note-taking condition. Each student was randomly assigned to watch one of the TED talk videos that were used in the original Mueller and Oppenheimer study and asked to take notes via the method to which they had been assigned. After the student had watched the video, the researchers collected the student’s notes and had them work on other “distractor” tasks for 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes were up, half of the students were given a test over the material seen in the video while the other half were done for the day. The tests were the same that were used by Mueller and Oppenheimer. Unlike in the Mueller and Oppenheimer experiment, all of the students were then brought back two days later to take the same test. By having only half of the students take their test on the same day as watching the video, the researchers could control for any retesting effects.

So what did they find? First, students who took notes longhand did statistically better on factual questions about the video than students who took notes on the computer for the test that happened the same day as the student watched the video. However, there was no statistical difference in performance on conceptual questions between the two groups. In addition, there was no statistical difference in performance between the two groups on the test that happened two days later. The students who took notes on an eWriter showed no statistical difference in performance compared to the other two groups.

To test some of the claims about why students who take notes by hand may remember more than those who take notes on a computer, the researchers compared the number of words and the contents of the notes. The researchers found that students who took notes on a computer did write more than students who took notes by hand and that they tended to copy phrases from the video “verbatim” more often than students who took notes by hand. However, both groups of students tended to record the same number of facts and ideas that later appeared on the test, meaning both groups were recording the same amount of “important” information.

Experiment II

For the second experiment, the researchers included a group of students who were instructed not to take notes during the video. By comparing the other groups with students who did not take notes, the researchers could see if taking notes by hand improves the amount learned or if taking notes by computer results in less material learned. This time, 222 undergraduate students were divided into four groups, a computer, a paper, and an eWriter note-taking group and a no-notes group. A subset of the videos were used in this experiment but otherwise the initial procedure was identical as before. When the students returned two days later, they were given 7 minutes to review the notes they had taken when they watched the video. As the group who took no notes could not review their notes, they only participated in the test on the day they watched the video.

So what did the researchers find this time? First, there was no statistical difference between any of the groups, meaning students who took notes on a computer or by hand did no better than students who did not take any notes at all. Second, on the delayed test, there was still no difference between the note-taking groups meaning that students who took notes by hand did not do better than the students who took notes on a computer.

Discussion and Takeaways

The researchers concluded that their first experiment replicated the direction of the claims in the Mueller and Oppenheimer paper even though the results were not statistically significant. Their second experiment on the other hand, did not replicate the results of Mueller and Oppenheimer. As the word count and amount of material that was copied verbatim was much higher for the students taking notes on the computer rather than by hand but the difference in performance was minimal, it seems that the reasons suggested for why those taking notes on a computer did worse in the original study are not sufficient to explain the original difference.

In addition, the researchers questioned how generalizable the results of these types of studies are. The researchers note that the this study and the original Mueller and Oppenheimer study used TED talks which are different from lectures given in a classroom. In addition, students taking notes on the computer were not given the ability to access email or social media so it is hard to actually measure how taking notes by hand versus by computer compare in a classroom setting. Finally, students in this study were not given a choice of how to take notes. In a classroom, students are able to choose how they would like to take notes and are likely to choose a method that suits them.

So what can we take away from this paper? First, saying that taking notes by paper is better than taking notes on a computer seems premature as in this study, there was no consistent pattern of taking notes on paper resulting in better performance than by taking notes on a computer. In fact, in most of the trials, performance on the immediate test and the delayed test were similar regardless of how notes were taken or if they were taken at all. For now, there does not appear to be any consistent evidence suggesting that any method of taking notes is superior to another.

Header images courtesy of here  by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and here by monicore.

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One thought on “Is taking notes on paper better than taking notes on a computer? Y- Maybe?

  1. I wonder if there are any generational effects that might complicate the comparison of this study with Mueller and Oppenheimer. Based on publication dates the two papers (and presumably the experiments) were conducted 5 years apart. Is that enough time to see a change in students’ computer usage/aptitude?

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