Want to Learn Effectively? Write Things Down

It’s hard to escape the impact of technology on our lives and the role it plays in how we live and learn.

Myriad software choices can make classrooms more effective and enhance productivity. Laptops and mobile devices are boosting our ability to collect data and engage in collaborative activities, if not replacing pens, pencils and paper as tools of the trade for students.

But neither students nor educators should be too eager to discard all of those long-tested and low-tech tools. Psychology professors Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the approach of taking notes by hand is more effective for retained learning. They discovered that taking notes on a digital device may actually short-circuit learning because it results in shallower processing.

Using computers for note taking has been perceived as advantageous for any number of reasons. Students can do more with a laptop, whether it’s accessing information, engaging in online activities or collaborating with other students. That includes lecture note taking, as people typically type faster than they write by hand, taking highly detailed notes that are more complete and accurate for review later on.

It sounds impressive when you learn the college students can type their lecture notes at 33 words a minute, versus only 22 words a minute when writing by hand. And if tested, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that laptop users had better immediate recall and somewhat better performance, at least for the first 24 hours afterward. After 24 hours they had forgotten what they’d transcribed and their notes, though copious, were too superficial to refresh memories.

Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research showed that students who hand-wrote their notes did better at growing their conceptual understanding of their lecture topic. They also did better at applying and integrating the material. Handwriting notes involves different sorts of cognitive processing that have interesting implications for learning. Because students can’t write every single word of a lecture by hand, they have to do a better job of capturing the information – forcing the brain to do some heavy lifting that boosts both comprehension and retention.

In fact, Mueller and Oppenheimer’s work suggested that longhand notes – because they are in the students’ own words and handwriting – also might serve as better memory cues for the way they recreate the lecture’s context and content.

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