Is It Time to Ban Computer Note-Taking?

Typed notes may be hurting student learning.

Yellow pencil with red eraser tip realistic On a white background look simple

Computer note-taking was a point of contention at my school. Almost every teacher used laptops. But we varied in how much we allowed students to take notes on them during class. Those in the no-computer-notes camp pointed to how often students were distracted by messaging and social media. Those who allowed laptops for notes argued that students should be taught how to use technology responsibly. We appreciated that admin trusted us to make our own decisions in the classroom. Yet students were often frustrated by the lack of consistency. While the research is still emerging, here’s what we know so far about how students take notes:

Digital distractions hurt learning.

Research confirms what every teacher already knows: Student learning is harmed by digital distraction. More importantly, it found that students underestimated the impact of their Internet use. In fact, they believed it wasn’t affecting their learning. And it isn’t just the students using the laptops who are affected. These researchers also found that laptops create a kind of “secondhand distraction,” negatively impacting comprehension even for students sitting in view of those with laptops.

Computer note-taking imhibits cognitive processing.

Even if we limit the Internet and other computer distractions, laptops present another temptation: taking notes verbatim.

The most well-known study on the subject looked at longhand versus typed notes. According to researchers’ findings, laptop note-taking led to weaker grasps of concepts. However, this was not because students were distracted. Even when students used laptops only to take notes, they still had a harder time with conceptual questions than those who wrote notes by hand.

Because students can type quickly, they don’t have to be selective about the information they put in their notes. They might feel that they’re being thorough, but this kind of note-taking robs them of the chance to process information, decide what’s important, and paraphrase it. In other words, many of note-taking’s benefits come from the selection and processing we do while we take them. Typing verbatim notes can prevent this cognitive process from occurring.

Motor skills play a part in retention.

Writing by hand may come with another learning benefit. The fine motor skills required for handwriting engage more parts of the brain than typing does. Research on the act of writing by hand suggests that it improves both retention and idea generation.

Of course, there are always exceptions. For kids with dysgraphia and some kinds of dyslexia, the benefits of handwritten notes might be negated by the cognitive overload of trying to write by hand. In fact, my school’s only hard-and-fast policy on digital note-taking was that students with these conditions were allowed to type their notes.

To ban or not to ban?

There’s no definitive research on the subject just yet. This randomized, controlled trial found no significant difference in performance between students who used laptops for notes and those who used pen and paper. Other research suggests that we can actually minimize some of the negative effects of laptop use in class. For example, it turns out that students are less prone to digital distraction when they are provided with a matrix for note-taking. Additionally, many of the studies that report negative effects on student learning are performed in lecture-style classes. Relatively little research has been done on how laptops affect learning during more interactive lessons.

Given my own experience and the larger number of studies that do lean against computer note-taking, I felt comfortable nixing it in my classroom. As a school leader, though, you may be hesitant to force this decision on your teachers.

If you continue to allow laptops for notes, be sure that both teachers and students understand how they can limit digital distractions and encourage good note-taking. Choosing to ban typed notes doesn’t mean dooming students to technological illiteracy. There are still plenty of other research-backed ways to incorporate laptops in the classroom.

Whatever you decide, have frank and open conversations with your teachers. They’ll support your choice when they know you value their thoughts.

Does your school have a rule regarding students taking notes on computers? What are your thoughts? Share with us in our Principal Life Facebook Group

Plus, is it time to reassess your school’s retake policy?

Posted by Alaina Gay

Alaina has worked as a high school English teacher, a college composition instructor, and an assistant writing center director. These days, she's a full time writer with a focus on education and edtech.

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