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Note-taking: Paper or Digital? (Or Both?)

Posted by Kate Seat on May 29, 2015 9:43:00 AM
Topics: Higher Ed, ed tech

When it comes to note-taking, do your students prefer using tablets or laptops or pen and paper? Like reading preferences with print vs. digital, this can be a pretty divisive issue. And as this excerpt from a post by Eric Weiner for NPR illustrates, it's rarely a case for absolute either/or. Find out why both methods have their own benefits.shutterstock_200191892

At first glance, a Starbucks on the campus of George Washington University points to the dinosaur conclusion. So plentiful are the laptops and tablets that they outnumber the double-mocha-half-caf-triple-shot-Frappuccinos. 

But when I look more closely, I spot plenty of paper here as well.

Evan DeFransciso, a 20-year-old student, says he makes a clear demarcation: digital for schoolwork and paper for "my creative writing ... short stories, poems, personal thoughts."

"The stuff that really matters goes onto the paper," he says.

Not just any paper. He uses a small black notebook with an elastic band and a storied past. Picasso and Hemingway used an early version of the Moleskine, and now you can, too.

Oddly enough, the analog company's success has grown in tandem with the digital revolution. In fact, when conducting market research, the company detected something even more perplexing: a direct correlation between sales of its little black notebooks and proximity to an Apple store.

That led Moleskine CEO Arrigo Berni to conclude that his customers are "not people who are clinging to paper with a nostalgic feeling, but rather people that have both digital and analog as part of their lives."

Yes, he says, we live in an increasingly digital world, but we "still have a need for physical experience, for emotional experiences that digital devices and technology" don't always provide.

Besides, he adds, for so-called digital natives, iPhones and other high-tech gadgets are commonplace. Paper is the curiosity.

Pam Mueller was a teaching assistant for an introductory psychology class at UCLA. One day, she forgot to bring her laptop to class.

"So I took notes, you know, the old-fashioned way, the way I did in college — pen and paper," she explains. "I thought I got so much more out of the lecture that day."

She mentioned this to her professor, Daniel Oppenheimer. It turns out that he had a similar experience in a faculty meeting. He was dutifully taking notes on his laptop but realized he had no idea what people were saying.

Oppenheimer and Mueller wondered if there was something about paper and the act of writing that explained this phenomenon, so they conducted an experiment.

They asked about 50 students to attend a lecture. Half took notes on laptops and half with pen and paper. Both groups were then given a comprehension test.

It wasn't even close. The students who used paper scored significantly higher than those who used laptops.

Mueller attributes this unexpected finding — published in the journal, Psychological Science — to the fact that the "analog" note takers were forced to synthesize rather than merely transcribe. It's a phenomenon known as "desirable difficulty."

"Desirable difficulty is some small roadblock that is in your path that actually improves your understanding of a topic," she explains.

This is, admittedly, a hard sell on college campuses, she concedes.

"Students find it hard to believe that more content isn't better," she adds, "that they aren't going to just get it all down now and study it later."

About Kate Seat

Kate Seat is a former copywriter at MBS. When away from work, she’s either creating one-of-a-kind art dolls, reading or watching way too much tv with her husband, daughter and an irritable chinchilla named Klaus.

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