Taking Notes, Part I

I’ve been seeing people sharing the idea that laptops are somehow to blame for students getting bad grades in college. When these shares come up it’s often met with the chorus voices bemoaning how easily distracted “today’s youth” are 1. It’s the early 21st Century’s “kids these days” moment.

But are laptops and tablets themselves the cause of bad grades? I don’t think so, and even the articles which highlight the negative impacts of laptops during lectures point this out. As the article quoted above states

The researchers hypothesized that, because students can type faster than they can write, the lecturer’s words flowed right to the students’ typing fingers without stopping in their brains for substantive processing. Students writing by hand had to process and condense the spoken material simply to enable their pens to keep up with the lecture. Indeed, the notes of the laptop users more closely resembled transcripts than lecture summaries. The handwritten versions were more succinct but included the salient issues discussed in the lecture.

So, while there does seem to be a correlation between understanding a lecture and hand-writing notes, even the people running these studies didn’t believe there was a causal relationship. So what is going on?

The research is still being done, but the hypothesis put forward in the above quote requires more research – students with laptops tended to type out everything without having to think about it. It also confirms my own experience as parent, student, and teacher 2.

I will, on occasion, train people to learn a new peace of software or workflow in my different contexts. It doesn’t matter if the person is writing long-hand or typing, any time I see a person desperately trying to capture each and every word I say, without following what I’m doing, I know that person will be needing help later. They have all the steps down perfect, they just don’t know what any of it means.

As a parent I see my oldest child taking her notes in shorthand, she tends to retain information very well. My middle child types out his notes and tends to copy slides down without thinking, retention is more difficult for him.

As a student, I tend to ignore slides which present a dump of content on to a screen. Instead, I keep my eyes down and listen to what a teacher/presenter says. I summarize these words and jot them down into my notes. Because I’m a tablet user I will often mind-map by hand using my Apple Pencil. I tend to retain information very well, and can follow the train of thoughts in my notes later on with some accuracy.

The studies like the one referred to above, then, pose three different lessons to me.

First, in a world where just about everyone can manage to type out every bit of content on a screen before the professor moves on, we need a better way to make slides. I’ve advocated for years that slides should be used for illustration only, and the studies on laptop use in the classroom only make me utter that cry even louder. In the days when you had to write shorthand to keep up 3, teachers could afford to put all their content on to a transparency. Those days are over 4. It’s time to try a new approach.

Second, electronic devices make it easier to be distracted. While distractions and daydreams are part of the listening process, when you have the depths of the internet at your disposal it’s way too easy to zone out and scroll through social media feeds during a class. As a presenter I think I might encourage people to turn off notifications during my time, that way at least the passive distractions can be removed. Other than that, people are just going to have to work out some balance of discipline to minimize the distractions available through an electronic device 5. As a society we need to start training people to do this. And, no, I haven’t figured it out.

Third, people need to be taught how to take notes! Because of the dearth of information available online, so many of us have come to the incorrect notion that information equals understanding. It does not. There is no need to process data if you just want to duplicate it. But in high school note-taking seems to be a lost art form, as teachers have themselves become confused on the difference between information and understanding. Since lesson handouts are often available for download, class-notes become viewed as secondary. Worse, some teachers insist students take long-form notes since “that’s what you’ll be expected to do in college.” Instead, students need to be exposed to different forms of note-taking, like shorthand outlining and mind-mapping, and encouraged to make visual links between points and add their own conclusions and interjections into the flow. If this is ingrained in students early, then using an electronic device for the note-taking process will not be detrimental. Students can type outlines, use mind-mapping software, or take up a stylus to write out notes on a screen without a decrease in retention because the vial step of processing data into smaller chunks still needs to be done 6.

Tomorrow I’ll share the three note-taking apps I tend to use whenever I find myself in a lecture or presentation. Each has their own strengths, and I tend to use each one in different settings, but all require information to be processed before it’s recorded. And that makes all the difference.


  1. These choir members also tend to have their heads buried in a screen during meetings. 
  2. This could just be confirmation bias, so take the rest of this with a grain of salt. 
  3. The dark ages, when I went to college and seminary. 
  4. Also, most of the good professors I had knew how to read a transparency upside-down as it lay on the overhead projector. Because no one knows how to use presenter notes, speakers who use slides like transparencies tend have their back to the class for much of their time presenting. It’s a “great” communication style. 
  5. Though I will say I’ve been in rooms where Civilization: Revolution saved my sanity. 
  6. The electronic distractions still remain, however. I can see a case for all lecture halls being Faraday cages, but that also becomes a public safety issue. There’s not easy answer there. 
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5 Thoughts

  1. I’ve had way too many students just copy and paste the slides so they could tune out over a game of whatever Facebook was promoting. We need shorthand classes! 🙂

    1. Break the trend! All those bullet points should be speaker notes. Since that’s what speakers are using them for anyway.

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