Every few months, Edutwitter features debates about whether handwriting or laptops are the better option for note taking. People on both sides take firm and definitive stances, as they should. “I’m not sure” and “It probably depends” are tweets not destined for viral fame. Stronger proclamations and less cool heads prevail in that space.
My intention in this essay is to identify the nuances of note taking, however, and then to circle back to suggest some strategies that classroom instructors will actually find useful.
I have been teaching note taking to college students since 2006. I’ve also been training faculty members on how to teach note taking to students for about a decade. Finally, since our knowledge of how people learn best is constantly evolving, I’m currently studying in the field of mind, brain and education science. What follows is the best of what I know about note taking in college classrooms.
Centering differences. A lot of teaching and learning conversations make students with learning differences an addendum. But instead of centering our neurotypical students, let’s start this discussion with students who are bold and brave enough to learn outside the norm.
I was lucky enough to have a taste of learning challenges after I experienced a traumatic brain injury, followed by postconcussion syndrome, a couple of years ago. Screens were not an option for me for a couple of months. My doctors advised me to strictly limit screen time due to a variety of visual impairments that I was experiencing. I wonder if a college professor would have been willing to accept a handwritten essay from me, breaking the typical requirement of a typed submission? I hope so, but I’m not sure. It wasn’t the norm, but it was what I would have needed.
Banning laptops or other note-taking devices from the classroom is an extreme stance that isn’t right for every student. I once worked with a student with learning differences whose handwritten notes were messy and disorganized. I watched as an accessibility tutor sat with him and helped him to type his words and ideas into a document on his laptop. The result was an exceptionally clear and thoughtful summary of the class. The fact is that some students need laptops or other devices to take effective notes. On that, there should be no debate.
One woman’s salt … Salt is terrible for us, right? We’re all supposed to consume less salt. It’s bad for our hearts and it’s going to kill us all. Maybe not. I happen to have a chronic medical condition that is treated, in part, by a high-salt diet. “Shake away,” my doctor says. “Put salt on your cereal.” Some people with this condition even take daily salt tablets.
What I’ve learned from having a medical condition is that while certain foods might be beneficial for most people, no food is healthy for absolutely everyone -- there’s just the food that’s healthy for me. Should most people keep an eye on their salt consumption? Probably. But I’m not most people. One woman’s salt is another’s broccoli.
The same holds true for learning. What research shows us is a best practice for most students might not be the ideal strategy for every student. Thank goodness we are professionals who can appreciate nuance and adapt our teaching strategies to meet the needs of our students, right? In the battle of handwriting versus laptops, let’s step toward the middle and be curious about how each student learns best.
Encouraging experimentation. One of the arguments that I’ve seen against allowing laptop use for taking notes goes something like this: students are adults, and they should get to decide how to take notes. Yes, and my job is to help my students practice divergent thinking, to encourage them to experiment with learning strategies and to offer them my expertise. If a student has never been taught how to take effective handwritten notes, how can they know that a laptop is their best solution?
They can’t. It’s our job to facilitate that decision-making process. The solution is to teach students how to take notes or for institutions to require first-year experience courses that teach note taking. Ideally, both will occur. Such courses can dive deep into study skills, and students’ other courses can give them a chance to practice those skills on a consistent basis. Then, once students have been able to test various forms of note taking, they can evaluate what works best for them and make informed decisions.
Teaching note taking. I teach two primary strategies: 1) the Cornell note-taking method and 2) concept mapping. You can find Cornell templates online, or students can simply draw lines on their papers. This method will help students interact with their notes, rather than just passively writing (or typing) them like diligent stenographers. Give students a few minutes at the end of your lectures for integration, prompting them to add keywords and questions to their notes.
Many students -- including me -- enjoy concept mapping, which uses graphic organizers to display notes. Students can draw circles on their papers and then lines connect the ideas. Currently, I like Bubble.us, an online concept-mapping tool. (The basic version is free.)
For students who opt to use laptops, this is a great way to keep them engaged. They could even post their notes to a class website or email them to you for some formative feedback. Students who handwrite their notes might want to create concept maps after class as a way to reinforce their learning. Consider an initial introduction to concept mapping as an in-class activity. Colored markers, crayons and stickers never fail to make this a fun lesson for students.
Good notes and four quarters will get you a dollar. In all of the debate about handwriting versus laptops, something is missing: taking notes is only part of the equation. What students do with those notes is much more important. Perhaps this entire argument about the best way for students to take notes is a bit of a red herring. I’d much rather see teachers talking about how they help students interact with their notes to increase information retention and learning. The big picture here is that we want the content of those notes to move into students’ long-term memory and for students to be able to use what they’ve learned in a variety of contexts.
Whether students in your courses take notes with pencils or MacBooks, do you revisit course content on multiple occasions, giving students a chance to practice what they’ve learned? Do you teach students how to study with their notes, using the power of recall to enhance learning? Students should ideally turn those notes into flashcards, whether the old-fashioned paper kind or online through a site like Study Blue. Check out Retrieval Practice, which encourages us to focus less on what we’re putting into students’ brains and more on getting information out.
In summary, the note-taking conversation has more nuance than can be captured in a Twitter debate. Students are human beings, persistent in their desire to learn, grow and live on their own terms. Let’s offer them options and teach them how to decide which options are best for them.
Let’s not forget ourselves, either. Faculty members are doing some of the hardest, most emotionally and mentally draining work of the modern era. I saw a recent post online that compared the stress level of teaching with that of air traffic controllers. We have to be savvy and thoughtful about where we invest our energy. Note taking is important. What’s even more important is how we help students to use those notes for deep learning and long-term success.