How to Effectively Take Notes by Hand

By Danni White on November 30, 2017

If you enter almost any college classroom today, you are likely to find a laptop in front of the professor from which he or she is lecturing, and a host of approximately 30 to 60 students also with laptops in front of them on which they are typing their notes. This isn’t all too surprising considering the fact that we live in a digital age, in which it is abnormal not to have a laptop, smartphone, or tablet at your disposal wherever you go.

Laptops certainly make life significantly easier to handle. We can communicate in many different forms — through email, Skype, FaceTime, Google Handouts — and a number of other options without having to be concerned about wires and bad connections. It enables us to do more work and more studying better and more efficiently. We can also collaborate easier with classmates, connect with tutors, and communicate with professors from wherever we are. Laptops help to open up a world in which we can learn almost anything we want to through a wide range of mediums.

Laptops enable us to take notes in class, and more of them, as opposed to using pen and paper. However, while it is efficient, taking notes on the computer may not always be the most effective way to learn and comprehend new material.

via Pixabay

A 2014 study by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer found that using laptops alone to take notes may actually impair students’ learning. The researchers conducted three studies in which they found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions (questions in which students must think in order to create an answer rather than recalling verbatim the answers as in rote memory) than students who took notes by hand. Mueller and Oppenheimer found that students who took notes on a laptop were more likely to type verbatim what was being said instead of processing the information they were hearing and putting it into their own words to reinforce their learning.

With that said, here are some points to keep in mind the next time you get ready to take notes in class:

1. Writing takes time, hence, comprehension is needed.
There is a reason writing by hand is better than typing on a computer. When we type, we basically are typing out everything we hear. Since most of us can type faster than we write, most of the time our note-taking turns into a mindless activity. We are pulled into a type of lull where we are just forming words on a screen and if someone asked us what the basic gist of the last 4 pages of notes that we just typed is, we wouldn’t be able to tell them.

When we take notes by hand, we can’t write every single word down. So, we are forced to listen, internalize the information, mentally summarize the information, and list only the primary points we need to remember. When we go back through those notes on paper, we are likely to fill in the minor details. In this way, our brains are forced to be engaged with the material as opposed to mindlessly typing.

2. Focus on what is important.
This can be a very big one that requires you to think about what is actually necessary for you to learn and remember and what is likely just “filler information.” Effective note-taking by hand requires you to focus on key points and concepts, writing down main words that will jog your memory about the filler information (all the details that you don’t have time to write down). Things like dates, theories, key terms, definitions, and names are likely the most important details you want to remember.

You are not writing a novel. Hence, you will only get frustrated with the process if you try to write down every detail. Consider the information you want or need to retain and focus on getting that onto your paper. Only write new information. For example, if you are in a class about Abraham Lincoln and you already know that he was the 16th president and led the U.S. to victory during the Civil War, you don’t need to write that down.

3. Avoiding distractions.
Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, cute cat photos. You know all the things you type in or shortcut click to pass the time when class gets a little boring. It is easy to do when a laptop is sitting in front of you to take notes. It is a little bit more difficult when paper and pen are the only two things at your immediate disposal. We all do it from time to time at work or at school. But, it is unhelpful to the goal of learning new information.

A 2011 study conducted among law students by Jeff Sovern found that 90% of those who used laptops in class engaged in other activities on the internet that were completely unrelated to the class lecture or course work at hand for at least five minutes. Additionally, Sovern found that 60% of the students surveyed were distracted for approximately fifty percent of the class time. Writing by hand is an effective way to avoid tempting internet distractions and reminds us that while technology is advancing, it is not always effective for learning.

Taking notes by hand is not difficult. It just takes the right frame of mind, willingness to pay attention, and the cognitive ability to summarize to put the most important points on paper. Your fingers might hurt a little, but your brain will thank you.

Danni White is a developmental psychology graduate student at Liberty University. She works in the digital publishing, media, and technology industries. After this degree, she will go on to work on a PhD in social psychology in which she hopes to do research on perception and social cognition’s impact on human behavior. She hopes to apply this research in corporate HR departments and community-based organizations. In her otherwise limited spare time, she blogs, writes and reads. She loves coffee, sports, music, cooking, meeting new people, and binge watching Netflix.

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