Handwritten Or Typed: Which Note-taking Method Works Best?

Note-taking can impact your academic success. Effective notes enable you to capture important points in a lecture, organise information, focus your attention on what to study, and make it easier to review material. The question here is whether to write or type them.

The Note-Taking Dilemma: Handwriting vs Typing

Few people bring a pen and notebook to lectures anymore. Gone are the days we organise a paper filing system. We store everything in the cloud, and we have all our devices synced to ensure that information is always accessible. Lugging around spiral notebooks and binders stuffed with paper is no longer practical in this technology age. The longhand note-taking practice is a dying legacy. 

But research has found that there are real benefits to taking notes by hand. Studies have shown that the pen-and-paper note-taking method in a classroom setting leads to better information retention than typing them out. This is because typing encourages mindless, verbatim transcription of what you are hearing. In writing out your notes, more consideration is given to what should be written, forcing the mind to work a little harder to summarise your understanding of the subject, resulting in more in-depth processing of the material. 

So, can we improve the quality of typed notes? The same studies have shown that even when explicitly instructed to draft summarised notes in their own words, students using their laptops to take notes showed the same level of verbatim content and were no better at synthesising material. 

But digital devices just seem more convenient, and almost all students in higher education today are required to have a laptop. With the large amounts of information presented in each course, we can most likely take more notes on the laptop and be faster at it. Whilst no one wants to lose out on capturing notes, learning should not be sacrificed.

Unpacking the Conflict. Let’s Consider Your Learning Scenarios

Concepts vs Facts:

For subjects that require an understanding of underlying concepts, you can yield the benefits of handwritten notes that force you to record ideas concisely and in your own words, encouraging deeper processing and critical thinking, resulting in better retention and conceptual comprehension of the material.

For subjects that involve factual learning, requiring less mental work in cognitive processing, such as having to memorise specific details, typed notes will work just fine. 

Details vs Understanding:

In correlation to the nature of learning for the specific subject (conceptual vs factual), consider the volume of notes you need to take and choose your methods accordingly. Writing can be time-consuming, especially in a fast-paced lecture. Typing takes less time, so more information can be put on the page and reviewed later.

Despite this, the better understanding of the subject in class that comes with the critical thinking process in handwriting your notes can also make it much more time-efficient to revise at a later date.

Pros & Cons of Technology:

Consider if you need access to specific digital tools and programs in your note-taking process. We often come across big new words in learning, and in doubtfully typing them out, you can rely on your computer’s autocorrect function to help correct your gibberish. You can also look up definitions or supplemental sources online to aid your understanding of the subject matter during the lecture.

However, digital access can also bring distractions, such as the irresistible urge to respond to your social media notifications popping up at the corner of your screen. It is inevitable that every once in a while, we fall prey to not saving our work on the computer. Yet, comparing losing your laptop to losing your notebook of handwritten notes for the entire year, your typed notes are more likely to be safe with computer backup. 

Preference & Function:

Finally, it comes down to how fast you can write or type whilst keeping up with the speaker and whether you can comprehend what you have scribbled or transcribed. Ultimately, your notes are to serve your study needs. Digital notes are undoubtedly easier to format, make edits, and find keywords. Unlike your hand, the keyboard never gets tired, so typed notes will remain clear and easy to read. If you need to share your notes with a study partner, it is also easier to grant access to a digital document.

On the other hand, handwritten notes allow for mapping and graphic representations of ideas and details—something that you cannot perform as quickly on the computer when note-taking. It is also easier to write than type out formulas.

Experiment with Both Note-Taking Methods & Choose

With a better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of handwritten and typed notes, you can now experiment with both methods and choose the one that works best for you and your learning style. You can also consider doing both. Handwrite notes during lecture, then go back and type them later, allowing for reprocessing and the use of your own word choice. Or type notes in class and write them out later as you prepare for an exam so that you can organise the information in your preferred way while making a cognitive impression. Whether it is easier for you to handwrite your notes or type them, make stick to a system that suits you.