The Best Way To Remember Something? Take Notes By Hand

People who write notes by hand remember the content of meetings and lectures better than those who use laptops, new research shows.

Headed into an important meeting? Grab a pen. Taking notes longhand will help you remember information better than typing them out, according to new research from a pair of psychologists from Princeton University and UCLA.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, compared how well more than 300 students retained information after taking notes on 15-minute TED Talks either by hand or with a laptop. Across three different experiments, the researchers found that taking notes with a laptop can be detrimental to learning. Both groups performed about the same when recalling facts from the lectures half an hour later, but longhand note-takers were much better at recalling concepts.

Handwritten note via Shutterstock

These results of only a few hundred students paid to watch lectures in the lab might not exactly translate in the real world, but they do suggest laptops might not be great for retaining information. The researchers postulate that the effect might stem from the fact that while typing, it's easy to write down verbatim what the speaker is saying, without really thinking about it. Taking notes by hand requires listening to the information being said, processing it and then summarizing it in your own words. The students who took notes on laptops tended to write more words than those who wrote by hand, but when given the chance to study their notes afterward, all that extra content didn't help much—students who wrote their notes longhand performed better on a test a week later, both on questions of conceptual understanding and the factual content.

"It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently," the researchers write.

[Image: Notetaking via Flickr user Wrote]

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  • I very much agree with this article because, I believe that when one does longhand several steps happen in split seconds in order for the note taker to better retain/recall information. First, before taking note he/she is telling his brain how he/she understands the information and paraphrase it. Second, while literally writing notes, he/she is telling the brain again (dictating) of the information and checks self if understood correctly. And, third, when the note taker pulls out the information for use. With all these steps, I think there are 3 steps of reinforcement that happen in order for the note taker to retain the information.

  • Very true. I had always assumed for myself that handwriting sticks because you have to "draw" the letters, pulling on your visual memory, or something like that. In other words, all the keys on my laptop have the same size, feel & shape and there is no physical difference between typing a g or an h. I just press buttons on a surface and theres no left-right/up-down movement. However, when it comes to writing, the extra effort required to "think" about the letterform itself and the actual movement of the pen over a 2D space organising that space in sentendes, words and paragraphs, is what makes it easier to remeber.

  • I teach my students through the Tri-learning experience. I orate the notes, they can visual see and read while they hear them. It is to help the information stick in their brains. Unfortunately, many of them are very resistant to learning and wonder why they fail.

  • Excellent observation. I have found this to be also very true, and continue to take notes by hand. Try reading Marcus Aurelius without taking notes, it's almost impossible to take in.

  • Omar Mora

    Most fundamental point: take notes! Using a laptop or handwriting...ok, maybe, maybe, different results. But, the goal is to increase the learning retention rate, so take notes by purpose!