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

Pam Mueller

Pam Mueller

Taking notes by hand enhanced understanding and recall more than taking on a laptop computer in a study by Princeton’s Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA.
Volunteers who hand-wrote notes performed better on factual and conceptual questions about the content than those who took notes on a laptop computer.

Mueller and Oppenheimer differentiated two types of note-taking:

Virpi Slotte

Virpi Slotte

More “superficial” information processing is linked to less accurate text comprehension, found University of Helsinki’s Virpi Slotte and Kirsti Lonka.
In addition, shallow processing is associated with lower performance on integrative and conceptual understanding, reported Clemson University’s Brent Igo, Roger Bruning of University of Nebraska, and Victoria University’s Matthew McCrudden.

Kirsti Lonka

Kirsti Lonka

Participants viewed 15-minute TED Talks or recorded lectures while capturing handwritten notes typed on a laptop computer.
Next, volunteers completed two 5-minute distractor tasks and a reading span task to test working memory.

Roger Bruning

Roger Bruning

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

  • 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 verbatim notes and showed poorer performance on 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 using laptops recorded more verbatim notes than manual note-takers, and their comprehension performance did not improve.

Matthew McCrudden

Matthew McCrudden

A similar study included a significantly longer delay between the lecture with 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

Findings confirmed that people who paraphrase content demonstrate greater content comprehension, enabled by  slower processing with manual note-taking.

Taking notes on a laptop computer enables users to transcribe information at higher speeds, and 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?


Twitter @kathrynwelds

©Kathryn Welds


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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