Taking Notes With a Laptop: Impairing Learning?

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The non-stop tapping of computer keys.
The occasional “click” of the computer mouse.
Laptops and tablets open in front of all most students.


If you are a student that has been in a classroom setting in recent years, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

I own a laptop and a tablet, but I take notes during university lectures with a physical notebook and a pen.

But in university, I’ve found that the ratio of Macintoshes to paper and pen in the classroom is highly disproportionate.. so much so that when a professor asks students to take out a simple sheet of paper for an activity or a visual demonstration, the majority of the class looks around in panic and whispers of “can I borrow some paper?” and “who has paper?” resonate throughout the classroom.

Stanford University (2007)

Some professors try to ban electronic devices, but to no avail.
But is there really a difference between taking notes on laptops and tablet PCs as opposed to taking notes by hand?

A recent study conducted by the Association of Psychological Science says yes.


The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking

“Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended — and not for buying things on Amazon during class — they may still be harming academic performance”, says psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University, lead author of the study (Rivero, 2014).

The study was conducted in three sections, and each section began with watching a lecture or TED talk, followed by a quiz.

Analysis of participants’ notes showed that laptop note-taking inclined the participants to transcribe lectures word-for-word, rather than processing information, whereas hand-written notes showed rewording of the content and important information being recorded; even after given instructions to not transcribe the lecture into their notes, the laptop users’ notes had significantly more overlap with the lecture compared to the handwritten notes, suggesting that the “urge to do so when typing is hard to overcome” (Rivero, 2014).

In the final section, the quiz was taken one week after watching and taking notes on the lecture, and longhand note-takers still outperformed the laptop note-takers.

Additionally, researchers saw lower scores for laptop note-takers even when they were allowed to study their verbatim notes prior to taking their quiz.


The results revealed  that the two types of note-takers performed equally as well on questions that involved recalling facts; however, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

Mueller stated that due to the information processing that occurs, the selectivity that longhand note-takers face when taking notes is strongly correlated with long-term comprehension.

“The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014)

On the other hand, longhand note-takers had reworded and selected the important information to write down, showing higher levels of engagement in processing and higher levels of efficiency when studying the content.

Although students who took more notes performed better, they performed equally as well as the longhand note-takers that had a lesser quantity of information but less verbatim overlap.

The researchers coined this as “mindless transcription”, stating that benefits of having more notes were canceled out by not processing the information.

However, this study was in a controlled experimental environment that required participants to only use their laptops to take notes.

But what about in a true classroom setting, where computer users multitask?

Salkeld, 2010

Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers

In another study conducted by Faria et al. in 2013, researchers studied the effects on multitasking on a computer in the classroom as well as secondhand multitasking, defined as “being in view of someone who is bouncing between main and secondary tasks on a computer screen” (Rivero, 2014).

Results showed that:

  • Non-multitaskers scored highest on tests when compared to their multitasking counterparts
  • Multitaskers scored lower than non-multitaskers, but higher than secondhand multitaskers, and
  • Secondhand multitaskers scored the lowest on tests.

Being in view of someone multitasking actually hindered attention and retention to the point where secondhand multitaskers scored significantly lower on tests, showing that just being around someone bouncing between tasks impeded classroom learning– more than the actual multitaskers themselves.

The results demonstrated that “multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students, and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content” (Faria et al., 2012).


In conclusion, taking notes on a laptop can be beneficial, if you don’t try to to transcribe the lecture word for word– this will help process the information, eventually leading to better retention.

(But in my opinion, taking note by hand is still superior. Totally worth the hand cramps.)

So for goodness’ sake, get off your computers in the classroom! Or at least don’t juggle other things while you “take notes”… for your own sake and more so the sake of those around you.

 Works Cited

Computers and Lecture. (2007). Stanford University.

Faria, S., Weston, T., Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.
Computers & Education (62), pp. 24-31. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.10.003.

Hembrooke, H., Gay, G. (2003). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of
Computing in Higher Education (15), pp. 46-64. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/BF02940852

Mueller, P. A., Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. 
Psychological Science

Rivero, L. (2014). Want to Take Better Notes? Get the Lead Out. Psychology Today.

Salkeld, L. (2010).  School becomes first to hand every single pupil a laptop to use in lessons and at home. The Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1262213/Writhlington-School-UK-students-personal-laptops-class-home.html

Take Notes By Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension. Association for Psychological Science.

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