Admittedly I am a product of the Luddite era, when taking notes meant pen and paper, unless you had a working knowledge of shorthand. In class we all developed our own versions of transcribing the words of the lecturer into some legible form to be reviewed later. Unfortunately, “later” often meant well beyond the time when those scribbles made sense and the well intended abbreviations morphed into indecipherable gibberish. Fast forward to the present and, with few exceptions, students are keyboarding. Most people can type faster than write longhand, so why would you choose the latter? In short, digital note-taking is easier.
New information suggests that longhand may be a better tool for locking in learning and help us remember what we heard. UCLA researchers had students take notes at a lecture and quizzed them later. Even with the Internet disabled, long-hand note-takers performed better on tests. Mueller/Oppenheimer referred to the “desirable difficulty” —when an obstacle that can frustrate us, actually helps us learn. Students who were transcribing the lectures were acting as stenographers and not grappling with the task of taking in the information, processing it and creating a way for them to recall it. Note-taking is a two part process; encoding or creating the notes and storage – reviewing the notes later. Printing information in hard to read fonts was another example of “desirable difficulty”.
As an aside, in a class I recently took, I was the only one still writing notes by hand. What I also noticed was that many screens were not capturing the speaker’s words, but playing solitaire, scanning Facebook or checking messages. So, has attention become so fragmented that even in the middle of a lecture, the focus is elsewhere, accounting for the information retention gap? Or, can we make the best use of these tools selectively knowing that once you store a phone number in your mobile device, for example, you will not have to recall it from your memory, having sent it to the cloud and safely stored elsewhere.