Note-taking study incites discussion on laptop use

Laptops can be ubiquitous in the College’s classrooms. However, a recent study, conducted by Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA and Pam Mueller of Princeton, found that using electronic devices for note taking, as opposed to writing longhand on paper, can create “shallower cognitive processing and a lower quality of learning.” Since the study’s release, its findings have generated momentum for recent student-faculty dialogues concerning the presence of technology in education, particularly in the College’s psychology department.

“Using a laptop is dangerous in at least two ways. First, the temptation to ‘multitask’ – goof off – is obviously great, and doing so does impair learning,” said Assistant Professor of Psychology Nate Kornell whose research focuses on learning and memory as they relate to education.

“Second, even if people tend to do more writing than people who take notes longhand, which might seem like a good thing, the consequences are actually negative, because when you try to transcribe everything you hear, you don’t have time left to think, organize your notes or write your own summaries of what you’re hearing,” Kornell said. “And each of these activities is very beneficial, especially for conceptual understanding, from a cognitive psychology standpoint.”

According to Oppenheimer and Mueller, despite the ostensible advantages of note-taking on a laptop – the ability to produce, for example, more legible and complete notes – the behavior can be detrimental to all kinds of learning and academic performance overall. Aside from the potential distractions of devices with Internet access, students who used laptops to take notes were found to have a lesser grasp on both factual and conceptual learning in both the short and long term than students who took notes by hand.

The students who used laptops were able to take more copious and comprehensive notes, but they were more likely to take verbatim notes, copying down word-for-word what the lecturer said, even when the experimenters explicitly instructed them not to in later studies. This “mindless transcription” nullified the apparent benefits of using an electronic device. Students who use laptops seemingly concentrate fully on typing as much as they can, rather than the actual content of the lecture. The test results showed that immediately after the lecture, both groups could produce the same level of factual recall, but the laptop users floundered when it came to conceptual learning and tested much worse.

In a follow-up experiment, Oppenheimer and Mueller tested whether or not there were differences in long-term memory of the information, if both groups were granted time to study their notes (like a student would before a test in a class). This time, both groups of students listened to lectures, knowing there would be an exam in a week testing fact recollection as well as higher-order thinking required of concept application. The results were the same: Students who took longhand notes did significantly better than students who used laptops to type their notes. Currently, the College does not have a universal policy when it comes to laptops in the classroom, choosing instead to leave that decision to professors’ individual discretion. Some professors allow laptops for note taking, others have strict policies against them.

Kornell believes students should, in theory, be capable of both taking organized notes and summarizing on laptops, but that the temptation to transcribe is often too great to resist. “This is especially problematic because the students stop thinking and start transcribing. Organizing and summarizing [longhand] are ways to understand the underlying concepts and think about how things fit together. These activities lead to conceptual understanding. They are natural when taking notes longhand. Writing down everything you hear does not encourage these activities,” Kornell said.

The educational value of technology can be greatly exaggerated, especially when the use of said technology is compared to the resources used to get them, Kornell explained.

“I can’t imagine a reason to have a universal rule. I think it’s one of those things that makes the most sense in individual classrooms, but just because I can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen,” Dean Bolton said. “Individual faculty work it out depending on how they want their classroom to operate.”

“I think teachers should decide on their own rules. In my case, I prefer to tell the students the facts and let them decide. I would advise students not to use laptops to take notes in class,” Kornell said. “But, ultimately, I think I will leave it up to them.”