Laptop Note-Taking leads to “Shallower Cognitive Processing” than Manual Notes

Pam Mueller

Pam Mueller

Taking notes on a laptop computer may not enhance understanding and recall as much as using the old-fashioned method of taking notes by hand:
People who hand-wrote notes to retain information performed better on factual and conceptual questions about the content than those who took notes on a laptop computer, according to Princeton’s Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA.

They distinguished between two types of note-taking:

Virpi Slotte

Virpi Slotte

More “superficial” (shallower) information processing is linked to less accurate text comprehension, found  University of Helsinki’s Virpi Slotte and Kirsti Lonka, and to lower performance on questions to assesses integrative and conceptual understanding, in findings by Clemson University’s Brent Igo, Roger Bruning of University of Nebraska, and Victoria University’s Matthew McCrudden.

Kirsti Lonka

Kirsti Lonka

To determine which note-taking techniques are associated with more robust information processing, Muller and Oppenheimer asked participants to view 15-minute TED Talks or recorded lectures while recording handwritten or laptop notes.
Next, these volunteers completed two 5-minute distractor tasks and a reading span task to test working memory.

Roger Bruning

Roger Bruning

By this time, 30 minutes had elapsed since the end of the lecture, and participants answered questions about the content focusing on:

  • Factual-recall, such as “Approximately how many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?”
  • Conceptual-application, like “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?”

Mueller-Oppenheim Question TypesVolunteers who took notes on a laptop were more likely to record nongenerative, or verbatim notes, and like previous findings, showed poorer performance on both factual-recall questions and conceptual-application questions.

Even when participants were explicitly instructed to “take notes in your own words and don’t just write down word-for-word what the speaker is saying,” people taking notes on laptops still recorded more verbatim notes than manual note-takers – and their comprehension performance still did not improve.

Matthew McCrudden

Matthew McCrudden

In another variation that included a week delay between the lecture and note-taking and the comprehension test, half the participants reviewed their handwritten or laptop notes for 10 minutes before the test and the other volunteers answered test questions without reviewing material.

Daniel Oppenheimer

Daniel Oppenheimer

Previous results were replicated under these conditions, suggesting that people who paraphrase content instead of recording verbatim tend to demonstrate greater content comprehension – and this advantage is enabled by the slower approach to manual note-taking.

Taking notes on a laptop computer enables users to transcribe information at higher speeds than manual note-taking, according to C. Marlin “Lin” Brown, then of Xerox, yet drawbacks include:

  • Shallower information processing
  • Decreased conceptual understanding
  • Reduced factual recall
  • Distraction in multi-tasking on email or social media

-*How do you maintain increase comprehension and retention when taking notes using a laptop computer?

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2 thoughts on “Laptop Note-Taking leads to “Shallower Cognitive Processing” than Manual Notes

    1. kathrynwelds Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Megan.
      Anyone who’s taken online courses with on-screen slides knows the challenge of toggling between taking notes on a laptop and viewing on-screen content.
      As you mention, sometimes the classic method of note-taking is both more practical *and* more effective for recall and deeper understanding.


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