Why Digital Note-Taking by Hand is Better than Using a Laptop

When it comes to classroom learning and retention, note-taking is one of the most powerful tools that students have at their disposal.

Studies have found that note-taking facilitates the recall of factual information, as well as the synthesis and application of new knowledge.

But note-taking tools have evolved over the past twenty years. Handwritten notes have been replaced with word processing software, digital notebooks, note-taking apps, audio recording, and more.

Some of these alternatives to pen and paper notes — especially laptops — may actually damage knowledge retention and test performance.

Let’s take a closer look at digital note-taking, the problem with laptops, and a better solution for taking your own notes in class.

Modern Technology Has Changed Education

You don’t have to go very far to find the incredible number of ways that modern technology has revolutionized education. 

From teachers co-opting kid-friendly games like Minecraft into their curriculum all the way to open-ended educational resources like Khan Academy, technology has already left its mark on the education system. 

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced even more learning to take place in digital classrooms. While about 67% of colleges and universities are planning for in-person classes in Fall 2020, nearly a third of colleges are considering online options.

At the same time that technology has impacted education, research has also found that a teacher’s experience with technology in the classroom varies at a personal level. Educators adopt technology tools at varying rates, often based on their comfort level and without a district-enforced plan.

If institutions and educators have started to rely more on digital technology solutions, it makes sense that students have also turned to computers and software to enhance their own learning experience.

In a world where smartphones, tablets, and laptops can make learning mobile and provide access to a wide variety of resources, students need technology just to keep up.

What does any of that have to do with digital note-taking?

Good question! If technology is practically a requirement in modern education, then asking students to rely on analog forms of self-development almost places them at a disadvantage. 

At the same time, the process of handwriting notes has some major psychological advantages that break away from the digital trend. In fact, 94% of college students say that paper is still essential to helping them achieve their academic goals.

But do the benefits of technology and digital-note taking outweigh the benefits of longhand notes?

Digital Note-Taking Improves Learning — Unless You’re Using a Laptop

Almost every college student is familiar with digital note-taking via a laptop and a word processor. 

You get to class, open the software of your choice (Microsoft Word or OneNote, Google Docs, Notepad, etc.), and you transcribe everything that the instructor says during the lecture.

This is a common scenario. Of the 88% of students who own a laptop, about 63% of them use it in class.

On the surface, this makes sense. The number of learning tools and technological improvements to the educational process can be staggering. Between document storage tools like Dropbox and real-time syncing with Google Drive and Microsoft OneNote, it’s easier than ever to use your preferred device to collect your notes and achieve results.

Just one problem: Those results vary wildly, especially for laptop users.

According to multiple studies, laptop users consistently perform worse when answering conceptual exam questions. This gap takes place because students tend to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing the information and reframing it in their own words.

The result is equivalent to a learning impairment. Students hear and capture the content, but they don’t actually absorb the information when it is presented to them. When it’s time to take the test, laptop users have notes and facts but no drawn conclusions, which makes open-ended and conceptual questions harder for them to answer.

What Pen and Paper Gets Right

Most notably, the above study points out that laptops and print materials are used at about the same rate when it comes down to exam prep. 

This indicates that writing notes by hand has major benefits when it comes to education, even though laptop-based note-takers actually have a larger quantity of notes than their longhand counterparts.

Taking notes by longhand slows you down — but in a good way. On average, adults write around 13 words per minute. Compare that to a keyboard, where a professional typist keys in words at 50 to 80 words per minute.

That extra time gives you a chance to absorb information, draw conclusions, jot notes and draw diagrams, all while conceptualizing information in a way that makes sense to you.

That’s something that laptop note-takers, regardless of their technical savvy, just can’t achieve from behind a keyboard.

Note: If you're interested in learning how to take effective hand-written notes, check out these 11 note-taking tips for your next class. If you want to learn how to take notes more quickly, check out our guide on taking notes fast.

Searching for a Middle Ground

If you’ve made it this far, you might be confused. 

Since we’re trying to make the case that digital note-taking is better than pen and paper, it might sound like we’ve gone out of our way to prove the exact opposite.

That’s not exactly the case. We’ve established that there are clear benefits to longhand note-taking and that there are severe drawbacks to note-taking on laptops despite the technological advantage that laptop users gain when it comes to convenience.

We’re not saying that you should avoid technology when trying to take notes. We’re saying that you need a middle ground — an intersection where technology and traditional note-taking methodologies meet.

A digital tablet is an obvious solution to this problem. 

Using a handheld device like an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil allows note-takers to write their notes in a longhand and freeform fashion without giving up all the benefits that come along with bringing technology into the classroom.

Some of the best note-taking apps in the App Store have essential features that leverage technology to reinforce learning:

  • Notability (available for iOS, Android, and desktop) allows students to record audio and sync it with their notes.
  • Goodnotes (iOS and macOS) divide notes into attractive digital notebooks so that it’s easy to store and organize your documents in a digital space.
  • Microsoft OneNote (all devices) connects to the OneDrive platform and allows you to integrate media, record audio notes, tag important items, build to-do lists, and more.
  • Evernote (all devices) does everything from note capture and tagging all the way to document scanning, device syncing, and even web clipping via a Google Chrome extension.

These apps and others come loaded with handwriting recognition, cloud storage, and more, but the technology works in the background so that you can take notes with ease.

Keep in mind that using an iPad isn’t the only way to take notes in a digital format. You can use pen-to-paper solutions like Livescribe, which uses a pen and notebook (rather than a tablet and stylus) to capture notes and upload them to the cloud or sync them with your digital device.

By the way, you should check out our in-depth comparison between Notability and Goodnotes if you're having trouble deciding which would be best for you.

Take Your Digital Notes to a New Level with Paperlike

At Paperlike, we’re a big fan of helping creators and doers accomplish big things.

Our screen protector has helped thousands of note-takers — from college students to business professionals — transfer their process from paper to digital. We do this by eliminating the main problem that users experience: Tablet surfaces are made from glass — and glass is slick. 

Trying to write or draw on a slippery surface is frustrating. Paperlike transforms the surface of your device into something that feels like paper so that taking notes feels exactly the way it would if you were using your old notebook.

Digital note-taking is essential for modern students. The ability to quickly look things up on an iPhone or take a quick screenshot expedites that learning process in ways that analog-only note-taking never will.

But pen and paper processes still have their benefits. A digital tablet and a Paperlike can help you find a middle ground to help you excel in your next class.