Take a Note…

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Take a note…

Something old is better than new.

Perhaps you have endured the same situation: A high level meeting is called and once gathered about the conference room table, everyone pulls out their devices…except you. You have a legal pad and a pen. Stares and smirks all around as the obviously superior younger set begin frantically typing away on their various sets. Yet, somehow, the person with the hand transcribed notes always seems to get a little more insight and details out of the meetings. Studies out of Princeton, UCLA, North Carolina and the Wall Street Journal bear this out.

Well, there is a reason for that. Note that the future is often found in the past. An new study relates that students who take notes by hand in class outperform students who type notes. As more students use their phones, laptops and tablets in class, they are shocked and surprised to learn they will have more success learning new material if they actually take up a pen or pencil and write. Probably the bigger shock is that they have largely forgotten how to write.

Yes, the overwhelming propensity of Laptops and organizer apps appear to leave pen and paper seem antique, but handwriting appears to focus classroom attention and boost learning in ways that typing notes on a keyboard does not, the new studies agree.

Students who took handwritten notes generally outperformed students who typed their notes via computer, researchers at Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles found. Compared with those who type their notes, people who write them out in longhand appear to learn better, retain information longer, and more readily grasp new ideas, according to experiments by other researchers who also compared note-taking techniques.

Ever since ancient scribes first took reed pen to papyrus, taking notes has been a catalyst for the alchemy of learning, by turning what we hear and see into a reliable record for later study and recollection. Indeed, something about writing things down excites the brain, brain imaging studies show. “Note-taking is a dynamic process,” said cognitive psychologist Michael Friedman at Harvard University who studies note-taking systems. “You are transforming what you hear in your mind.”

Researchers have been studying note-taking strategies for almost a century. Not until recently, though, did they focus on differences caused by the tools we use to capture information. Note-taking with a lead pencil, first mass-produced in the 17th Century, just isn’t so different than using a fountain pen, patented in 1827; a ballpoint pen, patented in 1888; or a felt-tipped marker, patented in 1910.

Today, however, virtually all college students have portable computers; lectures are the main vehicle for instruction; and the keyboard clatter of note-taking is the soundtrack of higher education.

Generally, people who take class notes on a laptop do take more notes and can more easily keep up with the pace of a lecture than people scribbling with a pen or pencil, researchers have found. College students typically type lecture notes at a rate of about 33 words a minute. People trying to write it down manage about 22 words a minute.

The very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing—the ability to take notes more quickly—was what undermined learning. Going so fast seems superior, but it removes the personal thought process and replaces it with rote copy power. Speed eliminates ideas.

In the short run, it pays off. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis in 2012 found that laptop note-takers tested immediately after a class could recall more of a lecture and performed slightly better than their pen-pushing classmates when tested on facts presented in class. They reported their experiments with 80 students in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Any advantage, though, is temporary. After just 24 hours, the computer note takers typically forgot material they’ve transcribed, several studies said. Nor were their copious notes much help in refreshing their memory because they were so superficial.

In contrast, those who took notes by hand could remember the lecture material longer and had a better grip on concepts presented in class, even a week later. The process of taking them down encoded the information more deeply in memory, experts said. Longhand notes also were better for review because they’re more organized.

In three experiments during 2014, psychologists Pam A. Mueller at Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer at UCLA arranged for students to listen to talks on a variety of topics including algorithms and bats, while taking notes either via keyboard or pen and paper. The 67 students were tested immediately afterward and then again a week later, after being given an opportunity to review their notes.

Those who wrote out their notes longhand took down fewer words, but appeared to think more intensely about the material as they wrote, and digested what they heard more thoroughly, the researchers reported in Psychological Science. “All of that effort helps you learn,” said Dr. Oppenheimer.

Laptop users instead took notes by rote, taking down what they heard almost word for word.

When tested, the longhand note takers did significantly better than laptop note-takers despite the fact that laptop note takers had more notes to look at. Having all these notes did not help refresh their recollection.

The problem is a typist’s tendency to take verbatim notes. Ironically, the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing—the ability to take notes more quickly—was what undermined learning.

This is the same feature that has dissolved the ability of people to communicate face to face, to converse. It hurts people and business, since increasingly, people cannot actually talk with each other in reality.

In one experiment, Dr. Mueller explicitly warned students using laptops to avoid taking verbatim notes, saying it would hurt their performance later. They couldn’t help themselves. “The tendency of people to take verbatim notes on a laptop is really hard to break,” she said. “It seemed really ingrained to type and type and type, even when you are told that it is not beneficial to your performance.”

These note-taking studies were conducted under laboratory conditions, but their findings likely apply equally wherever we try to collect our thoughts in writing, whether in a classroom, a business meeting or a doctor’s office, the experts said.

So, at your next series of meetings, close out the devices and hand out paper and pens. The process may be a bit slower, but it is definitely more exacting and the results will be higher quality.

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