A common question people ask is whether you should write notes by hand or type them up on a computer.
In short, studies generally show that writing notes by hand allows you to remember the material better than typing it. However, when it comes to actually choosing which method you should use, the answer is more complicated than that, since there are situations where typing your notes could be better than writing them by hand.
Accordingly, in the following article, you will see how each note-taking method affects the way you remember the material, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each method, how you can counteract some of those disadvantages, and how to decide which note-taking method is best for you.
Note-taking and your memory
In general, research shows that taking notes by hand allows you to remember the material better than typing those notes on a computer. This has been demonstrated in a number of studies on the topic, ranging from those which examined memory in general, to those which examined note-taking methods in a classroom setting. For example:
- An experiment on word recall and recognition showed that people remember lists of vocabulary words better when they write them by hand compared to when they type them on a computer.
- A similar study on the topic showed that taking notes using the pen-and-paper method leads to better recall ability than typing them up.
- A study on note-taking in the classroom showed that students who take lecture notes by hand generally perform better in tests on those lectures than students who type their notes on a computer.
In the case of taking notes during lectures, the main issue with typing is that people are more predisposed to engage in verbatim note-taking when they type, in comparison with when they write their notes by hand. This means that when using a laptop, people tend to just type whatever the speaker or lecturer says, in a way that involves a relatively shallow cognitive processing of the material.
In comparison, writing down the material by hand usually involves a more in-depth processing of the material, since people tend to give more consideration to which parts of the material they should write down, as opposed to just transcribing everything the speaker says word-for-word.
Being aware of this issue might allow you to take better notes while typing, as long as you can successfully summarize and rephrase the material while typing, instead of just transcribing it verbatim.
However, testing shows that in most cases, telling students to avoid taking verbatim notes when typing doesn’t actually lead to an improvement in their note-taking ability.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to improve if you actively work on how you take notes, especially if you dedicate yourself to it in the long-term, but it does mean that you should be wary, and honestly ask yourself whether taking notes on a computer is hindering your learning.
Factors to consider when deciding how to take notes
Conceptual versus factual learning
The way in which you’re expected to interact with the material that you’re learning matters when choosing which note-taking method to use.
Specifically, you should consider whether you’re expected to engage in conceptual learning, which involves reaching a thorough understanding of the underlying concepts in the material, or where you’re expected to engage in factual learning, which involves memorizing specific details in the material.
The advantages of taking notes by hand are more significant in the case of conceptual learning, since it requires a deeper processing of the material compared to factual learning, which only necessitates a shallow interaction with the material.
Accordingly, if you’re taking notes for a subject which requires conceptual understanding of the material, then you should be more predisposed to taking notes by hand, as opposed to typing them on a computer. Conversely, if you’re taking notes for a subject which requires factual understanding of the material, then you should be less concerned with the cognitive benefits of writing notes by hand.
Access and distractions
Choosing to type your notes means that you end up working primarily using an electronic device, which gives you access to a lot of tools while you take notes. This can be either beneficial or detrimental to your learning.
The advantage of having access to such tools while you take notes is that you can look things up during the lecture if the speaker is unclear, or if you want to examine supplemental material.
The disadvantage of having access to more tools while you take notes is that you also have access to a lot more distractions. This can be detrimental to your learning, since multitasking on your laptop during lectures has been shown to significantly hinder students’ learning.
You can try and mitigate the issues which are associated with working on your computer, by doing things such as by blocking your access to sites or programs which you know might distract you, though this doesn’t always work.
At the same time however, keep in mind that writing notes by hand doesn’t mean that you don’t have access to any distractions. For example, if you tend to constantly check your phone when you’re not on your computer, then you might encounter similar issues when taking notes by hand as you would when typing them on a computer.
Overall, this means that you need to be self-aware and reflective when thinking which note-taking platform will allow you to concentrate better. Furthermore, regardless of which platform you end up choosing, you should make sure to minimize external distractions as much as possible, whenever those distractions hinder your ability to learn.
Length and type of text
Writing notes by hand tends to make you more succinct, since people can generally type faster than they can write. This can be an advantage, since it means that you only include the more important aspects of the material in your notes. However, if you are forced to be so brief that you omit details that are more minor but still necessary, then this brevity can become an issue.
In comparison with writing notes by hand, typing notes allows you to write down more details, though the disadvantage of writing too much is that you might end up drowning in unnecessary details, which could make it more difficult to study from those notes later on.
Therefore, you should decide whether you will benefit more from being brief and concise, or from covering all the details which are mentioned during the lecture. This also has to do with how you’re expected to know the material (i.e. conceptual vs. factual understanding), as we previously saw.
In addition, keep in mind that:
- Certain topics might be faster to write by hand (for example, if there are a lot of formulas involved).
- If necessary, you can generally increase your handwriting speed or your typing speed using a few small modifications.
Preferences and study technique
Sometimes you may not feel comfortable writing notes by hand, because doing so might be too slow, or because you’re not familiar enough with the material in order to process it during the lecture. In such cases, typing the notes might be a preferable option to writing them down by hand.
Similarly, if you rely on going over the material after the lecture in order to learn it, whether a few days later when you’re doing homework or months later right before an exam, then it can be beneficial to produce more comprehensive notes by typing, even if it comes at the cost of not processing the material as much as when you’re writing them by hand.
Practical benefits of digital notes
There are a few advantages to typing your notes on a computer as opposed to writing them by hand, which are not directly related to your memory and learning ability, but which are still important to consider:
- Digital notes are easier to edit and fix.
- Digital notes are easier to search through.
- Digital notes are more reliable, especially if you back them up appropriately (e.g. there’s no chance of forgetting your notebook somewhere and losing a year’s worth of notes).
- Digital notes are easier to share (though some people may consider this to be a disadvantage).
These are all things which don’t directly influence your learning ability, but which you should still take into account when deciding whether to write notes by hand or type them on a computer.
Figuring out what works for you
As with any similar decision, there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to choosing which method is best for you, so it’s impossible to say that one note-taking method will work better for everyone.
Furthermore, different note-taking methods might work better in different scenarios, and this depends both on the nature of the material that you need to learn, as well as on the way you will utilize your notes later.
Accordingly, when deciding how to take notes, you should try things out for yourself and find out which method works better for you. Nevertheless, the following guidelines can help you figure out which note-taking method will generally be preferable in which case:
Taking notes by hand works best when you want to fully process the material as you’re writing it down. It’s especially helpful when you’re expected to achieve a conceptual understanding of the material, when you need to focus on the most important aspects of the material, and when the material you need to write down isn’t convenient to type up on a computer.
The main issue with writing things by hand is that it generally takes longer, which can be problematic if you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the speaker, or if you end up being so concise that you omit critical information.
Typing your notes works best if there is a lot of material that you need to write down, and taking notes by hand isn’t convenient or fast enough. You tend to process the material less as you’re typing it, especially if you end up just transcribing everything verbatim, so you will probably have to rely more on going over the material after you finish taking the notes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and depends on your overall study technique.
Other advantages of digital notes are that they’re easier to edit and fix, easier to search through, and are more reliable in terms of backups. However, working on a digital device could potentially open you up to more distractions, which is detrimental to your learning if you’re not careful.
Summary and conclusions
- Writing notes by hand generally improves your understanding of the material and helps you remember it better, since writing it down involves deeper cognitive-processing of the material than typing it.
- The main issue with typing is that it encourages people to transcribe the material verbatim, exactly as presented by the speaker, which means that they don’t process the material as much. This is difficult to avoid, even if you’re aware of the issue.
- Despite the fact that typing notes on a computer doesn’t promote as much cognitive processing of the material, typing notes and writing them by hand are both valid note-taking methods, and each can be preferable in different situations, as they both have their advantages and disadvantages.
- Writing notes by hand is better if you need to process the material as you’re writing it, and especially if you’re expected to reach a conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding). The main issue with writing is that if you can’t write fast enough you might not be able to keep up with the speaker, which could cause you to omit critical information.
- Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, or if you’re planning to go over the material again later. It also has the added bonus of making the text easier to edit and search through, though the use of a computer potentially opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.