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A new replication study revives the question: Is taking notes by hand really better for students?

Posted in Cognitive Psychology and Learning, Higher Education, and Technology

“Based on the present outcomes and other available evidence, concluding which method is superior for improving the functions of note-taking seems premature.” — K. Morehead, J. Dunlosky, & K.A. Rawson, How Much Mightier Is the Pen than the Keyboard for Note-Taking? A Replication and Extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014)

Well, yes, it is premature, and even Mueller and Oppenheimer — the authors of the original study on laptop versus handwriting for note-taking — might agree.

To call that original Mueller and Oppenheimer study high-profile is a bit of an understatement. It has been relentlessly cited in talks and articles about teaching, including an op-ed in the New York Times chiding students, and their presumably-pushover instructors, about one more piece of the supposed decline of contemporary higher education, the use of laptops instead of good old pen and paper for notetaking. Allowing students to do this was not just an affront to the classroom environment, but also a disservice to students themselves, one that deprived them of the chance to boost retention through traditional note-taking.

From there, we were off and running. Researchers and writers on the other side of the controversy, including myself, weighed in to point out that laptops are a necessity for some learners and that banning them amounts to straight-up barrier to access. Others observed, rightfully so in my opinion, that the ban-the-laptop philosophy rests on the faulty assumption that class itself is a passive exercise in transcription.

What I think still wasn’t emphasized enough, even amidst all these debates, is one key point having to do with cognitive processes: that it’s not the modality of or tools used for notetaking, but the thought processes that go along with it, that matter.

Let me say that again — it’s not the modality of notetaking, but the thought processes that go along with it, that matter. This ties in to one of the oldest principles in memory research, one of the few that memory theorists agree on — that the way in which you process something in the first place heavily determines whether it sticks or evaporates. Elaborating on, analyzing, or interpreting the information, as we probably do when engaging in traditional notetaking, comprise the “deep processing” that promotes memory. Just focusing on superficial characteristics of words and letters, as we might do if we attempted to simply write down as much verbiage as possible, is a ticket to forgetting.

Yes, laptops have affordances that make it more possible to get away with shallow processing, compared to paper. But that’s different than guaranteeingshallow processing. I think we all know that, and yet, here we are.

If you read the original Mueller and Oppenheimer study, you might have noted that the authors — being good cognitive psychologists, after all — did not really disagree with this. Here is one point from the discussion section of their paper:

The studies we report here show that laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even — or perhaps especially — when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking. Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears.

To me, the “if,” “when,” and “more likely” qualifications are important ones. Yes, the authors, in the end, concluded pretty unambiguously that laptop-style notetaking impeded the formation of memory under most of the conditions they studied. But it still came down to how exactly the notetaking was done. And they also conceded that they weren’t sure why they got certain patterns in their results having to do with the pen-and-paper advantage for some kinds of questions over others.

Besides speeding past these kinds of caveats, the typical ban-the-laptop debates conflate some other really important things. The issue of distraction while using said laptop, in the form of notifications and ever-present temptation, is a real one, but it’s different than whether using a laptop produces poorer retention due to the notetaking process per se. We can and should engage students on the distraction issue, but that’s a completely different project. The authors of both the original study and the replication both stress this distinction in their respective articles, and the rest of us should be careful to preserve that distinction in the discussion going forward.

There are a few other things we need to keep in mind as this story plays out. Replication is a big deal in psychological science right now, and I think we in the discipline are still figuring out what the right approaches to this are and exactly what it means when high-profile effects don’t hold up under repeated testing. That’s mostly insider stuff; for anyone else, I think the most important thing to remember is that failure to replicate is very, very distinct from saying that there might have been data fabrication. All kinds of things, ranging from variables we didn’t realize were important to simple bad luck, can lead to replication failure, and I hope that this fact doesn’t get lost.

It is also worth noting that Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson did replicate some of the findings of the Mueller and Oppenheimer study, and I hope that that nuance doesn’t get lost either. Broadly speaking, I would say that both studies support the idea that there are qualitative differences in the way people typically take notes in longhand versus when typing.

Beyond just the replication angle, there’s plenty else in the Morehead et al. study to keep us thinking for a while. They included a condition where participants used a technological tool, eWriters, that still involved writing longhand, albeit with a stylus instead of a pen, which was a nice way to both look at a new-ish technology that students might be using in the future and enable direct comparison between low-tech and no-tech methods for notetaking. They also added in more measures having to do with the quality of the content produced by different methods, and looked at a wider array of predictive relationships among variables including typing speed, something that is directly relevant to the claim that faster notetaking is worse notetaking.

Also thought-provoking is this easy-to-overlook tidbit: Morehouse et al. imply that by exclusively focusing on the mental processes that go on while students are formulating their notes — i.e., that deep or shallow processing during encoding — we’re missing out on another major driver of note-taking effectiveness, which is the “storage function” of notes. Here’s what I take this to mean: When students take good notes that capture the most relevant parts of a lecture, they end up with better-quality materials to study, which means a better payoff from time spent studying regardless of memories they may have formed during the note-taking process itself. And so, Morehouse et al. advise that “ a key focus for future research should be to understand the degree to which a particular note-taking method increases the likelihood that students include the most important and to-be-tested content in their notes.” Sounds like a plan to me!

So what is the moral of this still-unfolding story?

Sure, it feels like vindication for those of us who have had it with the kids-these-days tone of the worst of the laptop ban arguments. But I hope we can make this more than another tit-for-tat exchange between pro- and anti-technology camps. It should serve as a warning against the confirmation bias that is naturally going to happen as we search for evidence that supports our passionately held positions about learning. It should continue to serve as a push towards universal design for learning, with the realization that some learners are put at a disadvantage or excluded altogether when handwriting is mandatory.

And lastly, I hope we can take it as a reminder that as we search for ways to become better teachers, we need to look beneath article titles for what’s really going on in the studies that everyone is citing, and look past the technologies themselves toward the thought processes that are actually driving learning.