Note Taking in Lectures: Laptops or Longhand?

The debate continues over whether students are better served by taking their class notes longhand or on a laptop. The research is in, but the jury is still out.

by / January 8, 2018 0

A recent New York Times article, Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting, resumed the debate over whether laptops and other digital devices should be banned from classrooms, and if students should only be allowed to take lecture notes longhand and on paper. The article cites research that shows students are better at processing and understanding lecture material when they write longhand rather than on a keyboard. The article’s author, a University of Michigan professor, makes a supporting argument for like-minded professors who, with some exceptions for special-needs students, have decided to banish laptops from their classrooms and lecture halls. And she extends her case against laptops to include high school classrooms, as well as workplace meetings.

I’ve written before on what I see as K-12 schools’ futile efforts to ban smartphones from their classrooms — especially in light of schools’ ongoing efforts to acquire more technology resources for their students’ use. But I’ve also acknowledged the adverse effects smartphones are having on our students, as well as our society at large, so I’m not blind to the downsides of the digital revolution.

Anyone who has been in a large college lecture hall and viewed students’ laptop screens from behind will understand why professors might want to ban such devices from their classes. Because, while students typically take lecture notes in one window on their devices, they also simultaneously surf the Web, play games, watch videos and engage in social media — likely distracting themselves from the lecture, and potentially those around them.

Offering a counter-argument, in 2007, Michael Wesch, an inspiring anthropology professor at Kansas State, worked with his students to compile a video that went viral on YouTube: A Vision of Students Today. It’s a sobering look at students’ lives, their needs and interests, and illustrates how the typical college lecture hall format is mostly failing them. The video is even more dramatically true now than it was 10 years ago. But large lecture halls filled with students remain commonplace on college campuses.  

But what if students use digital tablets with a handwriting stylus to take notes during these lectures? Would that be acceptable to those teachers who choose to ban electronics from their classrooms by employing the “handwriting is better than keyboarding” defense? And what of the next iteration of digital devices that will further confuse this debate? And is much of this discussion really no different than when, in the pre-digital era, some of us doodled extensively in the margins of our notebooks during lectures? Perhaps we doodlers were less distracting to those around us than current laptop users. But we nonetheless engaged differently with what we were hearing — and sometimes better.  

So let’s presume the research cited in the New York Times article is valid. And it confirms that longhand note taking does allow students to better process and synthesize presented information, especially when compared to their typical attempts at verbatim transcriptions when they take notes on laptops. How should educators use these findings to inform their instruction? Is banning laptops in classrooms the best solution? Or do students need to be given some guidance, preferably prior to college, about how best to take digital lecture notes?
Or does the whole “longhand vs. keyboard” debate miss the larger and more important point made by Michael Wesch and his Kansas State students: Much of contemporary education fails to recognize how today’s students live and learn. So instead of arguing for or against digital devices in lecture halls and classrooms, shouldn’t educators instead be evaluating how the information important to their disciplines can be delivered in formats other than the traditional, and often mind-numbing, lecture?

But it should also be understood that there are times when “screens down” should be the norm. Being “fully present” is important in many situations, and eye contact and body language that assures others of one’s engagement is rightfully expected. This is true in both educational and professional settings. So students should likewise be held to these standards and not have an unrealistic expectation that they can be “on a device” at all times — like during a small group discussion.

Truth be told, I prefer taking notes longhand when participating in meetings and classes. It does help me better understand and synthesize what I’m learning because I’m able to record the information onto paper in a personal graphic format that serves me well. However, I also often use a laptop in these situations, and appreciate the advantages that digital technologies afford. So both methods work for me. But I do know what I’d be doing if I had to relive any of my tedious 100- and 200-level college lecture courses. And it wouldn’t be doodling on paper.        

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.