Are Laptops Really Bad For Learning?

9/04/2014 04:00:00 pm

A study was recently published in the Journal of Psychological Science and subsequently reported on in The Atlantic, Scientific American, The Association for Psychological Science, several educational blogs, The Washington Post, and elsewhere online. The study is titled: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. The general consensus seems to be that people learn more effectively when taking notes using pen and paper rather than laptops.

Experiment 1
• Watch 5 TED Talks on YouTube.
• Take notes with either a laptop or pen and paper.
• Afterwards participate in distracting activities in another room for 30 minutes.
• Take a quiz on the content of the TED Talks.

Pen and paper note takers did slightly better at factual recall, significantly better on conceptual questions. The laptop note takers took more notes (they transcribed more content) than those using pen and paper (they summarized & synthesized more content).

The research on note-taking suggests "more notes" is a sign of more effective note-taking, however, verbatim transcription is a sign of shallow cognitive processing compared to summarizing and synthesizing.

Experiment 2
The same set up as Experiment 1 with one change. Laptop note-takers were alerted to the shallow cognitive processing associated with transcription style note-taking and told to avoid it. They were also told to take notes as they would in a classroom.

The results were the same: more notes taken by people using laptops, pen and paper note-takers did better on the follow up quiz.

Experiment 3
Again, the same set up. And again, with one difference. Since people typically review their notes before taking a test students were given 10 minutes to review their notes before taking the follow up quiz.

Again, more notes were taken by people using laptops. Pen and paper note-takers did better on the follow up quiz.


Many people concluded from this study that students shouldn't take notes with a laptop; handwriting is better. Mueller and Oppenheimer, the authors of the study, concluded:

Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, 'if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop' than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. Indeed, synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes (e.g., Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Richland, Bjork, Finley, & Linn, 2005). For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, 'laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.' (p. 1166)

In short, no.

The study does show that using a laptop is highly correlated with verbatim note-taking; we know that's not an effective way to take notes as opposed to summarizing and synthesizing.

John Jones, Assistant Professor of Professional Writing and Editing at West Virginia University, also points out a problem with the instructions given to students in the second experiment. Namely, that students were told to take notes as they typically would in class when using a laptop. The warning against verbatim note-taking may have been ignored in the face of the students falling back on what they typically would do with their laptops. It's unlikely their note-taking habits would have been changed by a brief verbal warning in an unfamiliar learning situation.

In the same way learning to ride a bike and learning to drive a car require different learning experiences using different learning tools also requires different learning experiences. Students don't automatically know how to take notes; it's a learned skill, one we have to teach.

In the words of John Jones:

I am not criticizing Mueller and Oppenheimer's research, only the implications they draw from it. The correlation between laptop use and verbatim note taking is incredibly useful information for it allows educators to address how students use their tools. It certainly does not suggest that laptops are "harm[ful]" or should be restricted. The "pen" is not "mightier than the keyboard."

Moreover, we have to ask, is taking notes in a lecture hall what we mean by "learning"? Surely what we mean by "learning" is a far richer experience than that.

Cathy N. Davidson, Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University, has more to say about this study as well. In particular, she says people are asking the wrong question.

What do you think? What do you mean by "learning"?

Cross posted at the Canadian K12 Blueprint.

photo credits: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Tulane Publications, creative commons licensed (BY-NC-ND) flickr photo by Newman University , creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by ransomtech

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