Drive deeper learning with written notes

The act of writing notes forces the mind to analyze information and make decisions about it. To retain and understand more, take written notes rather than relying on handouts and slides.

We live in a society where technology is readily available to assist your every need. Need help deciding what to make for dinner? There’s an app for that. How about knowing what star constellations are in the sky tonight? There’s an app for that, too.

Naturally, we apply technology to areas which we feel will make our lives easier or produce faster results, but are there some things that are better left done the “old-fashioned way”?

This is the question that Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer set out to answer in a recent study published in Psychological Science. They wanted to know whether the tool used to take notes in class would make a difference in the students’ retention of information. The scientists set up several experiments in which students were assigned either to take notes on their laptops or with ink and paper. The students were tested after one week, in which they were allowed to study, and to the researchers’ intrigue, the students who took notes by use of pen and paper performed consistently better than their typist peers.

Mueller and Oppenheimer suspected that the results implied a difference in the way our brain processes typing versus writing. They observed that students who type notes, even when instructed not to type verbatim, have a tendency to transcribe information as it is heard, resulting in a shallower mental engagement.

While the typing students were able to write notes faster and make more thorough notes, those who were taking notes by pen and paper were engaging in the learning process more deeply.

So What?

What this proves is that the benefit of taking notes is not simply to store information (which would be better done by getting a set of PowerPoint slides ready-made from the teacher). If it were, the typists would have been just as successful as the manualists. Why weren’t they?

At least part of the benefit of note-taking comes from the way it improves your learning in the moment.

The fact that it’s physically a little slower and harder than typing may actually be the reason that writing works so well. No one wants to hand-copy every single word from a lecture or a book. That natural “laziness” works in your favor, because it forces you to prioritize. If you’re only going to write 3-5 words out of 20, you have to think quickly about which ones convey the key point.

In other words, you have to actually think. Rather than memorizing information through brute force, you are analyzing it and making choices about what to write and what to leave out.

When should you take notes?


Is your teacher talking? If yes, then you should be writing. Taking notes during class, especially on pen and paper will help you later when you go back to your book for homework or outside-class material.

And how about that textbook? As it turns out, it’s more than just a laptop table! When you finish reading a chapter in your book, take a minute at the end to write down things that you think are important, maybe trying to highlight the point of each learning section.

As you write these things down, you are not just recording bits of information. You’re analyzing them and relating them to your existing body of knowledge.

If it’s a literature or history text, underline or jot down vocabulary words as you go, and write a short summary at the end of each chapter about what you learned. This will give you a chance to “tie it all together” for yourself and help you realize if you missed something.

This doesn’t apply to math, right?

Math doesn’t involve the same critical process of winnowing things down to their essence. They come sorta… pre-winnowed. That’s the whole idea of math!

But writing helps here too, because it gives you a chance to practice active recall.

Write down the general equation or formula you will use for every homework problem, even if you have it on a reference sheet right in front of you. Cover it up and try to write the equation from memory. This active recall gets you thinking about it and paying attention to the details so that you can retrieve this information more clearly on test day.

In class, when the teacher is using one of those general equations, write it down, even if you’ve already written it before.

Organize your homework problems on paper, even if you’re doing one of those dreaded (ptui!) IXL assignments online. Homework tends to be on the computer nowadays, but that doesn’t mean you can’t utilize the ol’ notebook.

Quick Tips

Here’s how you can use all of these techniques to improve the quality of your handwritten notes:

  • Take notes from your textbook. Teachers often don’t cover every detail from the textbook, just hitting the highlights of what they feel are the most important points from the chapter. Read your chapter before class and review your notes before class. This exercise will give you context and a better sense for what parts of the lecture are most important to remember.

  • Jot down notes in class, whether you’ve been told to do so or not. Even if your teacher has not written anything on the board, write down what he or she is talking about. Choose just the essential words and abbreviate as needed. The act of writing out these ideas forces your mind to engage and log information away in the background.

  • Go over these class notes soon afterwords. Be sure to expand any abbreviations you may have used during class, so you can clearly understand what concept your notes are referencing, and use your textbook again to help fill in the gaps.

  • Start an equations sheet if it’s a math class, or a key concept sheet if it’s a language or history class. (Yes, you could just print one out from Sparknotes, but having it isn’t the point: the act of making these sheets will help your brain make connections to the subject material from the class lecture.) This also allows you to make connections between different sections in the chapter or even information from previous chapters and primes you to recognize patterns in the next one.

  • Organize homework problems on paper, and use mental math or long math for simple calculations rather than a calculator. When your brain recognizes that you need to do something repeatedly, it will rise to the occasion in processing the material. If you’re confused on a homework problem or concept, write down why you are confused so that you can clearly ask a teacher or tutor. Putting your thoughts into words will solidify the problem concepts so that your brain will remember them when the solution is found.

Though these tips may seem simple, they are very powerful! We can learn more efficiently if we take the time to understand how our minds process new concepts. You don’t have to ditch the laptop completely, but implementing these old-fashioned note-taking techniques can help your understanding and retention of class material. Let’s work smarter!