Note-taking methods remain a personal preference for many


Diamond Outerbridge, 16, right, takes notes on gas laws in chemistry class taught by Kevin Henson at Lenape High School in Medford, New Jersey. (Sarah J. Glover/Philadelphia Inquirer/KRT)

Julianne Calapa

With the rising number of distractions stemming from technology, one professor at the University of Kansas banned students from taking notes on laptops.

Carol Holstead, an associate professor of journalism at Kansas, noticed students with laptops struggling to stay engaged with lectures due to the easy access they had to social media and other websites. 

“It’s really disheartening to look out during an interesting and engaging lecture to see students just completely checked out and on their computers,” Holstead said.

John Dunlosky, a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State, agreed with Holstead’s observation.

“When I observe classes, too many students appear to be distracted by social media while taking notes on their computers,” Dunlosky said. “It is nearly impossible to do two things well at once, especially when it involves deeply concentrating on important and difficult conceptual material in lectures.”

In the 2013 Fall semester, Holstead officially issued the ban on laptops in her visual communication class.

“Surprisingly, the students were totally fine with the ban,” Holstead said. “I thought there would be a lot of resistance, but students told me a lot of their professors already banned laptops in other classes.”

The laptop ban forced students to take lecture notes with only pen and paper, which aimed to make students pay attention and process information in a different way. 

 “I knew from my own experiences that when I’m trying to take notes on a laptop, I attempt to type out everything that someone says verbatim,” Holstead said. “I could see that students were doing that, too. I felt like they weren’t really thinking about the material; they were just focused on writing as fast as they could. I didn’t want to see that anymore.”

Holstead said the test scores went up during the first semester of the ban. 

A study done by Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles looked at students’ ability to remember information based on note-taking habits. Researchers tested 327 students at three different colleges. Some students took notes on laptops, and others wrote notes with pen and paper. The study determined students who wrote their notes by hand scored higher on both factual and conceptual questions because they processed and retained information better than the laptop note-takers.

Dunlosky said he doubts technology will ever completely consume taking notes. 

“Technology cannot replace the hard work and effort that is required to learn anything,” Dunlosky said. “Learning outcomes appear to be better after writing notes, but as long as students use their notes to study effectively, then my guess is that taking notes using either method will not matter much. The real benefit of taking good notes occurs outside of class, when the notes can be used to support effective study habits.”

Holstead still does not allow laptops in her classes.

“I stand by my conviction that we process information different when we handwrite notes,” Holstead said. “I’m also beginning to think that a lot of students just never really learned to take notes the right way, so I think professors definitely need to teach students how to take notes in the best way for them.”

Students’ note-taking testimonies

Kent State students practice different methods of note-taking based on personal experiences and ways of learning.

Amanda Vandenhemel, a senior fashion merchandising major, transferred to Kent State from a school that did not allow students to type notes on laptops.

“Writing out all my notes wasn’t for me,” Vandenhemel said. “Right now, I take notes in outline format on my laptop every single day. I’ll type everything out in Microsoft Word and then on the weekend, I transcribe it into Microsoft Excel documents, especially if I need to do formulas or anything.”

To study for exams, Vandenhemel said she always makes handwritten flashcards. 

“I think handwriting when studying helps me because it’s my own note-taking and it’s my own thought process trying to understand and comprehend what the words are saying instead of just typing words to make a sentence,” Vandenhemel said.

Camara Rhodes, a junior theatre studies major, stays on the other end of the debate. 

“I write out all my notes by hand,” Rhodes said. “I get distracted very easily, so if I were to type my notes on laptop or my phone, I would not pay attention because I’d be on Twitter, Instagram or any kind of social media.”

Breanna Ganuelas, a sophomore communication studies major, said she falls somewhere in the middle of the note-taking spectrum.

“When I take notes in class, I write out the most important points of a lecture out in a notebook,” Ganuelas said. “But sometimes, I also bring my laptop to class and take notes on it if the professor goes through notes fast or if it’s a large lecture.”

Ganuelas said she learns best and feels most comfortable when she writes out her own notes.

Vandenhemel, Rhodes and Ganuelas agree that note-taking habits are based on personal preference.

“It doesn’t matter what system people use for note-taking,” Vandenhemel said. “If you find out what works for you and it makes you successful, then keep doing it.”

Techniques to improve memorization 

The debate over the best note-taking method revolves around the memorization of information and how students can recall the information for later use.

Katherine Rawson, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, researches ways to promote student learning and cognition. 

“Far and away, the two best learning techniques known to date for enhancing memory are the retrieval practice and the spaced practice,” Rawson said.

The retrieval practice refers to the practice of remembering and retrieving information from long-term memory.

“This is the basic technique that is engaged in when students use flashcards,” Rawson said. “The information on the front of the flashcard is a cue. The student uses this cue to attempt to retrieve the target information from long-term memory.”

Rawson said the retrieval practice boosts memory when students look at the correct answer on the back of the flashcard and then puts the card at the back of the stack to try again later until the answer is correctly recalled from memory.

The spaced practice revolves around spreading out studying over a few days rather than cramming the night before an exam, which helps long-term memory, Rawson said. 

“Both the retrieval practice and the spaced practice have been shown to work for a wide range of learners and for a wide range of materials, so these strategies are likely to work for most students,” Rawson said.

For some, the debate about note-taking habits and memorization may continue in years to come.

“For now, you just have to do what is best for you and your learning abilities,” Rhodes said.

Contact Julianne Calapa at [email protected].