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Note-Taking With Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall

Have you ever been in a lecture where you are stuck vigorously writing down notes for the entire class and asked yourself if the way you are taking notes is the best use of your time? Bui, Myerson, and Hale conducted a series of three experiments examining note-taking strategies, specifically hand-written vs. computer typed, and their relation to recall and memory.  With approximately 83% of college instructors teaching in a lecture environment (Wirt et al. 2001), proper note taking is a beneficial skill to have when it comes to learning at higher levels of academia like undergraduate and graduate institutions.

Hands Typing on a Laptop Computer

Students use a variety of not taking strategies in undergraduate, graduate and even high school level academics throughout the world. Strategies range from not taking notes (I personally would not recommend), to copying down every single aspect of the lecture, whether by typing or writing. However, in many classrooms today, professors discourage the use of laptops because they believe it is a distraction to students and those around them. With the use of wireless Internet and WIFI, students can shop, blog, and browse anything on the Internet while they are “supposed” to be taking notes. Some students, myself included, claim this is unfair because in an age where typing has become far superior to writing in speed, grammar and spelling, if the goal of a class is to learn as much of the material is possible, students should be able to have preference to their learning style.

Note taking can benefit you in two different ways when remembering information (Di Vesta & Gray. 1972). First, note taking requires encoding, or the actual process of attending to information and learning it. This occurs when the note taker takes the notes in class and also, later, during studying. External storage, the second benefit, allows the note taker to record information somewhere it cannot be forgotten, the actual notes, before it is further encoded during studying.

The goal of this series of experiments was to examine whether or not there are certain note taking strategies that are better than others. The study included three experiments each building off each other to help hone in on better note taking strategies. Experiment 1 instructed participants to either transcribe,  to jot down everything the professor says and presents, or take organized notes (in an outline format including major points the student thought to be relevant) on a lecture either by hand-written notes or typing them. In most undergraduate classes, students usually seem to take organized notes, jotting down the important aspects from each slide or lecture.  The 11-minute long lecture covered material that none of the participants had any prior knowledge of. Researchers found that students who took computer-generated notes did better on free recall and short answer questions, immediately after the lecture. Furthermore, a transcription of the lecture was a more effective note taking strategy than taking organized notes. So there’s your argument for using computers in class… A plausible reason can be explained by the generation effect (e.g. Rabinowitz &Craik. 1986): information is better remembered when it is generated compared to when it is simply read or heard.

Using the results from Experiment 1, researchers conducted a second study to determine whether computer-based, organized note taking or computer-based transcription, yielded better recall on a delayed test. Organized note taking lead to better recall on a delayed test than transcription note taking of the same material. This phenomenon can be explained by levels of processing at encoding. Levels of processing refers to the notion that the more you relate information to context or prior knowledge and process the information less based on surface level characteristics, the better the information is remembered. By taking organized notes, a deeper level of processing is needed to condense the main concepts and make connections than simply regenerating the information heard and typing it down. Because it takes longer and is more effortful to perform deep level processing than it is shallow processing, recall is improved and students do better when tested. This more effortful processing also increases the desirable difficulty of the information. The higher the desirable difficulty, the more likely the information encoded will be remembered because the learning required more effort. So for students who are being testing on information immediately after they have learned it, organizing your notes so that you are able to relate the information to prior knowledge or other aspects of the lecture, will lead to better performance on tests. So based on these results, If you wanted to take notes and never study them again, your best chance of success lies in taking organized thoughtful notes.

However, neither of these studies fully simulate the actual learning environment. Most students do not take notes just in class never using them again. Most students use their notes to study by rereading their notes, reorganizing them, or re-writing them. This is different then just taking them and never using them again. So, a third study was conducted measuring recall after the students had been given an opportunity to study their computer-generated notes. This study generated results similar to Experiment 1. Students who had transcribed the lecture had better recall then those who had taken organized notes. In this case, students who transcribed entire lectures had more notes and were able to study more information than the students who may have had better quality notes, but had less to work with. The amount of notes available to the student for studying trumped the initial advantage that taking organize notes offered.

So where does this leave us? As a full time college student, and note taker, it seems that the only thing I have come away with is that taking notes on the computer may allow me to take more notes. It then becomes an issue of quality vs. quantity? But hold on, here’s an idea, why not have both! By transcribing a lecture, and then later condensing the information into organized notes, you get the best of both worlds. You get the advantage of quantity of notes and also the quality that comes with deeper level processing. First, by transcribing and then condensing, desirable difficulty is increased. Desirable difficulty refers to the phenomenon where the harder and more time consuming the task is; the longer it is remembered (Bjork, 1994).  Second, with more of the initial information copied down, it allows you to improve your recall on a test when you have sufficient time to study your notes. The advantage of better initial recall, which is associated with better initial learning, is still attained when the transcription is subsequently condensed and organized into key concepts. With both the advantage of better initial learning and having more information to study, one may do better on tests where there is no time to study (sometimes a kid’s got to have a social life, or sleep) or a professor springs a pop quiz on you. By honing note taking strategies, one is able to kick start the initial learning process, while laying the foundation for future long-term retention.

Bui, D. C., Myerson, J., & Hale, S. (2012, October 8). Note-taking with computers: exploring alternative strategies for improved recall. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030367


  1. tojama
    April 11th, 2013 at 17:56 | #1

    Note taking is a strategy that I have been struggling to improve. Before coming to Colby I have had the luxury of most of my professors handing out notes in high school. This allowed us to just take notes on anything that was not already included in the slides. I remember my 8AM first semester history lecture class. Taking a lecture class at 8 in the morning was definitely a change but also this was a lecture class in which the professor just stood at the front of the room and lectured for 1:15 minutes with no powerpoint or notes. This was a complete struggle! Sipping on coffee and intensely trying to take down every piece of information was quite challenging. I found it very difficult to pay attention because I only focused on what I needed to take down. After class when I tried to review my notes, it was like a maze. I had to spend many hours rereading my notes and trying to fill in the blanks. I’m glad that professors are starting to understand the benefit of providing notes before lectures and that there are more resources provided that make it easier to retain more from a class.

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