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Note-Taking: Pencil vs. Keyboard

By: Joseph D'Andrea

At one point or another, almost every student has known the feeling of having to massage their wrist after a lengthy note-taking session. Note-taking is a part of school that every student has to endure, and as the years have gone on, to some this practice has become simpler and more efficient by way of typing on a laptop. However, there are still those who continue to utilize conventional pen-and-paper note-taking. Like anything else, there are different preferences for different types of people, but the proven benefits and drawbacks for both sides may help in deciding which option is better for you as a student.

On the side defending the traditional hand-written method of taking notes, something that many current students need to admit to themselves is that they can become easily distracted. When a laptop is placed in front of a student’s face during a lecture, there is a natural tendency to distract oneself by opening a new tab. This defense of pen-and-paper is not to criticize individual students who may fall into this habit of becoming disinterested while in class.

In 2019, an “Inside Higher Ed” article reported on The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning’s study titled “A Mixed Blessing? Students’ and Instructors’ Perspectives about Off-Task Technology Use in the Academic Classroom.” Surveying 478 students and 36 instructors at the University of Waterloo, this study showed that students should not feel alone in feeling inattentive while in class, as it is a common issue.

Whether you use a pencil or keyboard to jot down notes in class, these are several advantages to each side.

“Students actually know and realize that the use of technology has a negative impact on people around them when used for off-task purposes like browsing the web,” said Elena Neiterman, a Waterloo teaching fellow and one of the authors of the study. “[Students] also felt if they were too overwhelmed by the information … they would get off the topic and go browse or text somebody and take a mental break.”

A similar article from the “Institute for the Future of Education,” “Study Reveals the Advantages of Taking Notes by Hand,” reads: “....several studies have reported that although writing on a computer saves time because it is a faster process, taking notes by hand improves students' memorization and word recognition. One of the advantages of handwritten notes is that reading and writing on paper improves conceptual understanding.”

In a poll sent out by The Delphian, 53 percent of students claimed that they preferred to type out their notes, while the remaining 47 percent indicated that they favored handwritten note-taking.

I personally side with the slight minority opinion, since I feel more aware of the notes I am taking. The same goes for when I read; I recall what I read to a higher extent when I am required to physically turn a page, instead of clicking an arrow. In some way, it can be an unexplained preference. However, I do believe that having to write out and structure sentences written with a pen and view words on a physical piece of paper makes your brain work harder and allows you to retain more information.

Taking notes on a laptop does have its upsides, though. In a vast lecture hall, some students may not be able to have an opportunity to ask questions during a lesson or may feel shy to begin with. By doing a quick Google search to clear up any confusion on a piece of information being taught, this at-your-fingertips resource is extremely helpful for all kinds of students. Additionally, the notes being typed out become immediately digitized in the form of a document, which prevents loss of any sheets of loose leaf—let alone an entire notebook or binder—containing lines and lines of lines of hand-written information.

Adelphi MBA student Peri Finkelstein, ‘22, brings to the forefront a significant advantage to digital note-taking—how it benefits impaired students. “Due to my physical disability, I am unable to take notes by hand. By using my laptop, I am able to excel in my academic efforts and take notes digitally,” Finkelstein said.

For those who face a similar issue, this aspect of taking notes on a laptop is very helpful. Similarly, digital note-taking can also come in the form of speech-to-text programs, allowing students to look back on information they may have missed while in class, especially if they are unable to keep up along with a professor’s pace of speaking.

Google, Microsoft, Apple or otherwise documents are also very easy to organize into digital folders. Sheets of paper can be scanned on a cell phone to create a PDF version of a physical page of notes, but this process takes much more time, and again, is not completely reliable if you were to have lost the sheet of paper at one point. With a laptop, tablet or even pocket-sized cell phone, all of which are easy to transport as opposed to several notebooks, these notes are portable and documents become much more accessible.

At the end of the day, this debate between hand-written or typed-out notes comes down to one primary variable—one’s own discipline when opting to use a laptop. This dilemma affects both the student and instructor, as it can lead to an unengaging classroom atmosphere.

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