Why I am discouraging typed note-taking in my classroom

Recent articles in The New Yorker and Scientific American (both June 2014) argue that students who take notes on a laptop do not perform as well on assessments as those students who take notes by hand.

In The New Yorker article, author Dan Rockwell references a 2003 Cornell University study in which half the students in a lecture took notes on their laptops while the other half took notes by hand.  In a post-lecture quiz, those students who took notes by hand out-performed the students who typed their notes on a laptop.  Similarly, the Scientific American article references an April 2014 study by professors from Princeton and the University of California which came to the same conclusions.  Both articles provide two reasons for the cognitive advantages of taking notes by hand: first, most students can type much faster than they can handwrite, so they are more likely to take verbatim notes on a laptop.  Verbatim notes do not allow the students the opportunity to “digest and summarize” – the skills that lead to the superior understanding and retention.  Second, laptops can be a serious distraction in the classroom.

These articles come at an opportune time for me as I reflect upon my first year of teaching in a school with a 1:1 laptop program.  During this year (my 23rd year of teaching), I have noticed that:

  • Attentive and motivated students appear to use their laptops effectively to take notes whether using the keyboard or a stylus when the laptop is in tablet mode;
  • However, for students who have any issues with self-discipline, motivation, or interest in the subject, the screen is clearly a distraction: they do not engage during discussions and are unable to recall simple instructions;
  • Students who are prone to laptop distractions tend to ’stray’ during whole class activities: whole class discussion, review session, or any time it is necessary for a period of ‘information delivery’;
  • Students appear to be mostly surfing social media sites such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter in a somewhat aimless fashion;
  • Students who are distracted by their laptops more frequently miss deadlines or fail to fulfill the requirements of assignments, particularly when this information is communicated verbally.

There were points during the year when it was tempting to ignore the internet surfing, the games of 2048, the texting.  After all, most of my students are 16-17 years old and are only one or two years away from the supervision-lite college environment.  However, developmentally, many of my students, bright as they are, are not ready to self-monitor, and since I am not a college professor, I have a responsibility to keep them on task.  As a high school teacher, there is much more to teaching than merely the content: it is also my job to engage students, motivate them, and guide their habits and behaviors.  As I look back on the year, it is clear that a sizable minority of my students are significantly distracted by their laptops and that some students are not absorbing even the most basic information.  Moreover, the research that taking notes by hand is superior to verbatim typing is convincing.

So, as I plan for next year, I am considering the following:

  • Making more consistent use a class management software such as Dyknow to monitor the students’ screens. I may not even need to look at the Dyknow dashboard which shows the contents of their screens; the fact that students know I can see their screens will dissuade many, but not all, students, from straying.
  • Encouraging students to take notes by hand in Evernote, OneNote, or a similar handwriting program.
  • Asking students to close their laptops when important information is discussed and then providing them with the opportunity to add this information to their planners/ calendars.

As antithetical as it is to my paperless classroom model, I am even considering encouraging students to take notes on paper!  The end result may not be a paperless classroom, but perhaps a paper-enhanced class.