Note Taking as Stenography

Jay Sterling Silver offers what he thinks is the real argument against laptops in the classroom.

August 19, 2016

So, with all the controversy swirling around students’ use of laptops in the classroom, have you decided to prohibit them or not?

Advocates of allowing laptops took a took a punch in the gut with a recent study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finding that students -- unable to resist the Sirens of the internet during class -- performed better when laptops were not permitted in the classroom.

Of course, as with critical-thinking courses and outcomes assessment, everyone and their dean has a theory on the subject. As a longtime advocate of permitting laptops, my intuition has been that we who took notes by hand back in the age of pens and paper simply can’t appreciate that keyboard note taking is more efficient for today’s students weaned on computers. I concede the high distractibility quotient of laptops and can accept the MIT study’s claim that they depress performance. I’m just not persuaded that our students are scampering around cyberspace at a much higher rate and to a significantly worse effect than in the days of yore when we daydreamed, doodled and passed notes in class.

And I’m not convinced that, at the level of higher education, efforts to enforce attention aren’t a bit too paternalistic. Perhaps banning laptops deprives the internet surfer of the important life lesson that, in the end, cutting corners has consequences.

Given that, why have I now changed my mind and defected to the opponents of laptops in the classroom?

Because, almost without fail, when I call on a student who’s been clacking away taking notes during class to apply a rule or concept under discussion, their eyes instantly dart down to the laptop screen in front of them as they scroll through the notes they’ve just taken to find the answer. One would have thought I’d asked a court reporter to read the last sentence back. Since the question normally requires the student to use, rather than simply repeat, material they’ve just typed into their machine, they do not find the answer and set off on a futile treasure hunt through all their notes to locate it.

My best guess is that today’s students’ keyboard skills are sufficient to allow them to mindlessly record what’s said in class, like a secretary too hurriedly taking dictation to think about what’s actually being said.

I haven’t been a student myself lately (as the allusion to secretaries taking dictation makes pretty clear), but I don’t recall being able by hand to record verbatim what was being discussed in class. Instead, I believe we were forced -- due to the relatively slow rate at which one can take handwritten notes -- to grasp, paraphrase and summarize in more or less outline form the information we were taking down. Laptops may, in other words, convert students into tape recorders whereby learning is postponed till whenever the transcript of a class is reviewed, corrupted by imperfections in the transcripts and impeded by the resultant inability to ask questions in class. Paradoxically then, inefficiency in the speed of note taking may help infuse an understanding of the subject matter into the notes.

I will break the news of my defection to the dark side of the laptop issue to future classes in the following way: effective note taking is not a one-step process where classroom content travels directly into your laptop via your hands, which, it appears to me, is the natural route of laptop note taking. Instead, it is a two-step process where the material must first travel through your mind, to be inspected and rewrapped, and only then recorded via your hands.

A neuroscientist may well cringe at my explanation. On the other hand, without the benefit of the better of the two note-taking methods, he or she may have had a harder time becoming a neuroscientist in the first place.


Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law.


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