Devices Equal Bad Note-Taking? It’s not that simple!

As I prepare for the upcoming school year, the water cooler is abuzz with the latest positions on classroom technology policies. If you’re thinking, “Why does your school’s water cooler buzz?”, I should note that my professional network increasingly includes colleagues with whom I interact on Twitter (so, shoutout to my #digiped, #edchat, #edtech tweeps).

Anyway, Summer Break gives teachers a lot of time to reflect on what they will choose to encourage and discourage in classes to come. Whether to allow students to use laptops, tablets, and mobile devices during class time is a perennial hot topic, but flames have been fanned by an April 2014 article from Psychological Science, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer conducted three studies in which they found:

that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions thanstudents who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

You’ve likely seen the highlights in popular press outlets like PBS, but one finding that has gotten less traction is poignantly summarized by science reporter Wray Herbert,

At one point, they told some of the laptop users explicitly not to simply transcribe the lectures word-by-word. This intervention failed completely. The laptop users still made verbatim notes, which diminished their learning.  Apparently there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information—and instead to process and reframe information in their own words, with or without the aid of asterisks and checks and arrows.

The psychology here appears to jive with studies on e-reading that show a decrease in comprehension, retention, and engagement when compared to traditional paper-reading practices. Lesser reading, lesser note-taking–if you noticed a pep in the steps of that teacher you called a luddite, now you know way.

But hold the phone…


The anthropologist in me cannot let us move past a major discrepancy in the old-school/new-school debate. For the sake of laboratory study, Mueller and Oppenheimer set parameters, controls to help mimic real-life approaches to classroom learning. But we cannot forget that the default mode for schooling (from Early Childhood to HigherEd) is pen and paper. Students are taught all sorts of strategies and techniques to maximize that medium. These are informed by a trial and error process that goes back to Fred Flinstone chiseling into a slate.


It’s disingenuous to think that providing an education’s general warning about the danger of verbatim notes is equivalent to intense socialization. When we talk digital note-taking and other electronic engagement, we must consider that most students–let alone, teachers– are picking up skills on the fly.

I do not doubt that there are psychological ramifications for using different mediums. But this does not give license to an all-or-nothing approach. If students are going to use digital technology in education, then we need to rethink (as those in the aforementioned hashtags have been doing), what it means to engage information. We have to reimagine the ends and means of activities like note-taking. For instance, instead of asking why students are on Facebook while we’re teaching, we should similarly inquire why we teachers are not on Facebook while we’re teaching.

Education is a subject matter that deserves more attention than a dualist approach. Every classroom does not need a smart board. While I have a reputation for incorporating digital technology in my courses, you’re more likely to see me writing on a marker board than clicking through a PowerPoint presentation. And I’ll even go so far as to recommend, Dan Rockmore’s piece, “The Case for Banning Laptops in the Classroom” from The New Yorker. Rockmore has some positions that I don’t happen to share, but its nuance is enriching regardless of how you use technology in the classroom. Every classroom does need teachers who are bent on captivating their students. How to do that better is a conversation worth ending my summer vacation for.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.

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