With the exam season fast approaching many students will be using laptops for note-taking and revision.
But a new study by two US academics has found that even though taking notes on a laptop is faster and more legible, taking notes the old-fashioned way is a more effective way of processing, understanding and memorising information.
Dr Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Dr Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA asked college students to listen to the same lectures, some using laptops to take notes and others writing in long-hand.
They discovered that although the students who used laptops took more copious notes than their peers, they tended to transcribe content “mindlessly”.
When tested 30 minutes later both groups had memorised the same number of facts. The laptop users, however, performed much worse than their peers when asked about ideas.
The researchers, who will report on their findings in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, then conducted a similar experiment but tested students a week after the lecture.
They found that students who had taken handwritten notes scored higher all round – both in terms of factual learning and conceptual understanding.
Teachers we spoke to in the UK expressed interest in the US study but stressed that it is important for students to find the revision and note-taking methods that work best for them.
“They need to experiment with a variety of revision techniques to find their preferred way of retaining and recalling information,” said Ben Solly, vice-principal of Long Field Academy in Melton Mowbray.
“Most students end up producing revision cards which contain highlighted key words or creating visual thinking maps and using mnemonics to help them remember key elements of their work.”
Paul Burrows, assistant headteacher of Handsworth Grange Community Sports College in Sheffield, said that “active” revision works best.
“While reading has its place, the students who take this a step further and engage with the material in an active way are so much more successful,” he explained.
“Active revision can be as simple as rewriting notes in a condensed or even diagrammatic way or producing intricate mind-maps which link ideas and concepts across different topics.”
Meanwhile Dr David Ceiriog-Hughes, who teaches French, German and general studies at Winchester College, said that doing past papers and practice questions is key – as long as students get feedback on their performance.
“The key to good note-taking is to write as little as possible, to use colour codes and trigger words and to re-read notes regularly,” he added.