Taking Lecture Notes On A Laptop Might Not Be That Bad After All

By Emma Young

“The pen is mightier than the keyboard”… in other words, it’s better to take lecture notes with a pen and paper rather than a laptop. That was the hugely influential conclusion of a paper published in 2014, by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer. The work was picked up by media around the world, and has received extensive academic attention; it’s been cited more than 1,100 times and, the authors of a new paper, also in Psychological Science, point out, it often features in discussions among educators about whether or not to ban laptops from classrooms. However, when Heather Urry at Tufts University, US, and her colleagues ran a direct replication of that original study, their findings told a different story. And it’s one that the team’s additional mini meta-analysis of other directly comparable replications supported: when later quizzed on the contents of a talk, participants who’d taken notes with a pen and paper did no better than those who’d used a laptop.

In the new replication, as in the original study, the 142 participants were all university students (this time at Tufts, rather than Princeton), who took notes while watching one of five roughly 15-minute-long TED talks. As before, there was then a roughly 30-minute delay during which they completed distractor tasks. After this, they completed a quiz on the facts and concepts presented in the talk.  

When the team analysed the data, they found that, as in the original study, participants who’d used a laptop to take notes recorded more words overall, and more verbatim phrases from the talk. Also as before, both groups performed equally well when it came to recalling the factual content of the talks. However, while Mueller and Oppenheimer found an advantage for longhand note-taking on the recall of concepts presented in the talks, Urry and her colleagues did not.

Despite the team’s efforts to replicate the original study as closely as possible, there were some differences between the two, however — including some that the researchers acknowledge could have affected the results. For example, more of the participants in the new study reported typically using taking class notes by hand. Also, in the original research, participants completed the study in a classroom, mostly in groups of two, and watched the talks on a screen at the front of the room. In this new research, about 80 of the participants completed the study outside of a class, and they viewed the talk on a laptop provided by the team. Many of these participants “noted that session were subject to distractions and errors,” the authors comment. This might have influenced the results.

Also, this is of course only one replication. So the team identified a total of eight studies (including theirs and two from the original paper) that they felt were sufficiently similar to be directly compared. This mini meta-analysis produced also failed to find an advantage for longhand note-taking on conceptual recall. 

Urry and her colleagues do accept that there were some limitations to all of these studies, including theirs. For example, TED talks are brief, and not hugely similar to typical university lectures; there are no pauses for extra note-taking or questions, for example. “Future studies should use approaches that better represent real-world settings,” the team recommends. Future studies should also consider new note-taking strategies (such as the use of styluses to write notes on a paper-like screen) as well as individual participants’ note-taking preferences. Also, there was only a 30-minute delay between watching the talk and being quizzed on it; this is not typical of real world university learning, either, so suggests caution in extrapolating from these results to likely impacts on actual students.

Still, given the influence of the original 2014 study, it’s important to note this failure to replicate, and the researchers’ cautionary conclusion: “Until future research determines whether and when note-taking media influence academic performance, we conclude that students and professors who are concerned about detrimental effects of computer note-taking on encoding information to be learned in lectures may not need to ditch the laptop just yet.”

Don’t Ditch the Laptop Just Yet: A Direct Replication of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s (2014) Study 1 Plus Mini Meta-Analyses Across Similar Studies

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest