Which Is Better – Hand-Written Notes or Digital Ones?

Take a look around you the next time you’re sitting in a meeting. You’ll mostly see tablets and laptops and maybe a smart phone or two. This trend to rely on an electronic device for note-taking in a meeting, seminar, conference (or anywhere else) does not appear to be slowing down. The days of taking notes using an old-fashioned notebook or lined notepad seems to be fast disappearing.

Compare that to taking hand-written notes and deciding what to do with the notes after the session and you are back at your desk. What happens to the notes? If you are like most people, you toss them onto a stack of paper on the desk or credenza because you have no idea where else to park them. And that’s where they stay. However, with a tablet or computer, the notes will not be lost, especially if they are electronically tagged. There is definitely less paper clutter.

Moving the notes to the Cloud with programs such as Dropbox and Google Docs is another reason to take electronic notes. These programs are reliable, excellent storage spots and the data are safe. Coffee won’t spill on the pages.

A final reason to opt for electronic devices is that most people type faster than they write (unless you peck away) so electronic notes contain more information than the hand-written versions. We’ll soon see, however, that typing quickly and efficiently is not as much of an asset as we might think.

With all of these “pluses” for taking notes on electronic devices, experiments in June, 2014 showed that hand-writing notes wins hands down (pardon the pun) over a tablet or computer. Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer* learned that students who write out everything by hand actually learn better. They remember more details, process and understand the material better and can explain it better. Even though hand note takers end up with fewer notes because they cannot write as fast as they type, they still integrate the information better.

How could that be? Quite simply, the learning process is different. Writing by hand requires the note taker to put the content into his/her own words. That requires listening closely to the material presented, translating the information so it is personally meaningful, and capturing the intent of the speaker. Hand writing notes requires the brain to pay attention, stay focused and interpret the meaning of the words. Even after a period of time, hand note-takers retain more. This action is far more effort than simply typing the words without filtering them which is why better learning takes place among people who hand-write their notes. There are many cues that help the reader remember what was said such as the way the content is worded, the use of short-hand symbols and conclusions the note-taker draws while actively listening. These cues are not evident from electronic notes.

On an electronic device, something else happens: the note-taker is easily distracted by new email pings, texts and the urge to surf the web. Even though the note-taker is listening, he/she is multitasking and not paying complete attention. Some of the information will not be captured. How can it be when your mind is switching back and forth from task to task?
And, finally, while electronic note-takers have less of an incentive to look at their notes once they are filed away, manual note-takers often have a different point-of-view. They refer back to their notes to organize and review them and perhaps even rewrite them more coherently. The act of rewriting means focusing on the material again. Learning occurs each time the notes are read. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered that an area of the brain called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) lights up and activates learning.

In summary …
… if you prefer taking notes by hand and didn’t understand why, it now may be clear why you resisted the urge all this time to follow the lead of your co-workers and use an electronic device.
… If you currently take notes with a tablet or computer, try showing up for your next meeting or conference with a low-tech notebook or notepad.

You may be very pleased with how much you remember just by hand-writing the meeting or conference notes. That plain old white pad will help you focus on what’s happening at the meeting. You’ll walk out of the meeting understanding exactly what happened and what you need to do to follow up. Your co-workers may not be so fortunate and may even look to you for guidance. Go ahead – it’s OK. Let them in on the hand-writing secret.

*Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/ 6/3/14.

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