Last spring, a new study showed that students who took notes in longhand did substantially better on conceptual questions than those who took notes on a laptop. The results were, perhaps, not that surprising—until you consider that the laptops in the study had Internet access disabled.
It wasn’t that the laptop note-takers were more distracted. That may indeed be a valid concern with personal technology in the classroom, but it was not what Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California at Los Angeles set out to measure. Rather, their study suggests there are real differences between the utility of taking notes by hand and on a computer.
When students take notes on a laptop, the study concluded, the ease of data entry makes them more likely to transcribe everything the professor is saying. Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper. Students who use laptops end up with neater, more easily searchable notes, but they may be denying themselves the opportunity to do the upfront processing that is a crucial factor, it seems, in long-term retention of class material.
The study’s results illustrate an example of what UCLA cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork has termed “desirable difficulties”–learning tasks that make students’ brains work a little bit harder in the name of better long-term memory. Our brains don’t function like audio recorders, saving everything we perceive. Instead, memories are cemented through frequent neural activity, and repeated encoding and retrieval processes. That’s what underlies the so-called “testing effect,” which I wrote about back in February. When we give our students frequent tests on important material, we force them to work to recall information. It is that mental work that makes for better long-term retention of whatever it is we want students to retain.
All of which means we should be giving our students frequent tests and quizzes on facts and concepts we want them to remember, and providing opportunities for students to do the mental work that will serve them down the line.
I suppose we could ban laptops from our classrooms to encourage longhand note-taking, though there are good reasons why such a policy may be unwise. But how else can we introduce desirable difficulties into our classrooms? I’ve summarized a few ways below, taken from the work of Bjork and his wife, Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, also a UCLA professor of psychology: