Why You Should Continue Taking Notes by Hand

Taking notes by hand increases cognitive engagement with the material and allows us to retain and understand information better.

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By Yaqi Zeng

You open a Google Docs file with your AP US History notes and sigh in relief. No longer do you have to worry about asking your teacher to wait before going to the next slide, missing an important fact, or suffering from severe hand cramps. Though taking notes on an electronic device may seem easier, studies actually suggest that note-taking by hand is more effective in retaining information as well as understanding concepts.

One reason why writers perform better is that they cannot write down all the words their professor speaks and are therefore forced to summarize the material, subconsciously processing and engaging with it more. On the other hand, typists may transcribe the professor’s lecture word for word, which is known as non-generative note taking, which does not involve any processing of information. Furthermore, those who include sketches and drawings in their notes are more likely to recall the lesson better: when people visually represent knowledge, they can deepen their comprehension of concepts.

A study conducted at Princeton University tested 65 college students on their comprehension of a TED Talk that covered interesting, but not well-known, information. Half of the students took notes by hand while the other half took them on a laptop. The students then completed three distractor tasks. After 30 minutes, they were asked to answer factual-recall questions and conceptual-application questions. While both groups performed equally well on the factual questions, writers performed significantly better on the conceptual questions. When the two groups were tested again a week later, the writers once again outperformed the typists.

Another study conducted at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology analyzed the brain activity of 20 students who took notes by hand and typing. In both experiments, participants wore an electroencephalogram with about 250 electrodes picking up the electrical impulses of brain activity. The results showed that both adults and children had higher brain activity when writing by hand compared to typing on a keyboard because the use of pen and paper gives the brain more “hooks” to hang memories on. Specifically, writing by hand triggers more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain, as more senses are activated by feeling the pen press on paper, seeing the letters you write, and hearing the sounds you make while writing. These sensory details strengthen neural connections in the brain and increase learning, allowing us to learn and remember better. Generally, cognitive engagement, the manipulation and transformation of information, strengthens the hand-brain circuitry and deepens understanding of the content.

Additionally, using a laptop or technological device distracts both the student taking the notes and the person teaching the material. A study conducted at the University of Essex looked at the effect of the presence of an electronic device on the relationship between two people having a conversation. 74 participants were assigned to a room with a phone either present or absent and were asked to hold a conversation for 10 minutes with a counterpart. Those with a phone present in the room reported feeling less close with their partner and a lower quality of relationship than the pairs without one. Though most teachers cannot tell if you go on your phone during class, taking notes or even leaving your phone on your desk impairs your ability to stay engaged during class. It makes you feel less close to your teacher and thus less interested in the conversation or lesson.

So, the next time you go to class, try pulling out a notebook and taking notes by hand. It is likely to help your comprehension of and engagement in the lesson your teacher is teaching, which is especially valuable, as it may relieve some of the hardships that many are facing with online learning.