Most semesters, I teach a college study skills class. This semester, I’m taking a class instead (two, actually: Basic Statistics and Experimental Psychology). This means I get to test all the advice I’ve been giving my students for the last five years.
And one piece of advice I give to my college students is to take notes by hand. That’s right—leave the laptop in the backpack and kick it old school with a pen and notebook.
You may not be a college student, but chances are you find yourself taking notes from time to time—in meetings, on the phone with a client, or during a webinar. And whether you use a Bic Crystal and a legal pad or a sleek MacBook Pro, you may have wondered whether you should be writing or typing your notes.
The answer? It depends on why you’re taking notes in the first place.
If you’re trying to learn, use pen and paper
In most cases, we take notes because we’re trying to internalize the information being presented so we can use it later. We’re trying to learn, in other words. In these situations, it turns out that we’re better off taking notes by hand.
In 2014, a paper entitled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” generated quite a bit of buzz in the public square (NPR and Scientific American both took notice). Psychologists Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer found that taking notes by hand confers clear advantages in terms of understanding and retention.
Mueller and Oppenheimer suggest that when we type, we tend to try to capture every single piece of information—each word the speaker says, every bullet on the PowerPoint. And a fast typist can get pretty close.
When we handwrite notes, though, we’re forced to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not. We can’t write nearly as fast as we can type, so we’ve got to sort through the information mentally as we process it. We’re forced to do more mental work to record the information, and it’s that mental work that creates understanding and builds durable memories.
In most college courses, a student will be better off taking notes by hand. So will a professional at a conference or a musician at a clinic. When learning’s the goal, grab a pen.
But not all note-taking situations are about learning.
If you’re only trying to record information, type
In some circumstances, our goal is simply to record information, not to internalize it. It’s probably better to type your notes if you’re taking meeting minutes or taking notes for a boss who’s asked you to sit in for her at a board meeting.
Another consideration is searchability. Sometimes it’s crucial that the information we’re recording be easily searchable on a computer, and when this is the case, typing holds an advantage (although OCR—optical character recognition—has made it possible to search hand-written notes).
So whether it’s better to type or hand-write your notes depends on their purpose. If you want to eventually get the information into your own brain, choose the harder road and take notes by hand (as I’m doing in my two classes this semester). But if you’re just creating a permanent record of some kind, enjoy the ease of typing.