Culture & Competency

Handwritten Notes vs. Keyboard


As a university student in the early 1990s I somehow convinced my parents that having a laptop for my studies was absolutely essential (!!!), and borrowed from them the required stack of cash to purchase a Toshiba laptop. It was rare to have a laptop in the classroom in those days, and I was one of only two or three out of a hundred or more students who used a laptop in class. One of the other laptop-toting students was blind, and thus used a laptop to capture his notes. And there was me. And maybe someone else. I don’t recall exactly. Fast forward ten years when I taught at the university and there were many more students with laptops. Fast forward another fifteen years and almost everyone uses one now. Interesting times. Actually, my laptop was good for a year of solid use, and then I decided to sell it (and pay back my parents) and go back to pen and paper. It was thus a good experiment, but for whatever reason decided that I’d rather not have the outstanding loan than keep on using a laptop. And pen and paper was … better.

While at university I forced myself to become a good QWERTY typist, and got pretty good at taking full notes of the lectures. I did, however, then create an integrated mind map of my lecture notes, reading materials, and tutorial resources using pen and paper … so my typed lecture notes were one of the resources I relied on, but not everything.

You may have seen the articles from earlier in the year about handwritten notes versus typed notes, and the study done at Princeton (e.g., here’s the HBR article on the research). Basically the researchers found that students who took notes by hand had better recall and better cognitive understanding of the material compared with those who typed their notes. The researchers did three takes on the research question, and hand written notes came out top in all three. Even now with the various computer equipment I have available to me in the office, I still go back to pen and paper when I want to figure something out, or do an integration of multiple things. I’ve tried digital mind mapping but find the paper and handwritten version more effective.

The researchers are definitely right on one part of their findings, though, and I see it in my work. Because I can type faster than I can write, I am very likely to create a transcript of what’s said in a meeting or phone call. I have some level of formatting and “logical structure” baked into my notes to drive cognitive understanding, but I know that I type a whole lot more than I’d write by hand. I find this useful for recalling what was discussed later on, but I have to refer to my notes rather than going by memory.

Going back to my university days, one of my wild (evil?) ideas to capitalise on having a laptop when no-one else did was to offer to my fellow students a free copy of my typed notes. While this may sound kind on the surface, my theory was that others would listen even less effectively if they knew I’d be slaving over my keyboard (if they came to the lecture at all), and that at exam time they’d have much less cognitive recall than I would as the note taker … and therefore I’d get higher marks than most other students. This was an untested theory … but I shake my head in disbelief at myself all these years later. I still think it would have worked though.

Handwritten or typed notes? What’s your style? What works best for you?

Categories: Culture & Competency

7 replies »

  1. I take notes with my iPad Mini at our community of practice meetings but have the feeling that hand written notes might be better. I also play with hand writing recognition on my Surface. But that is not yet good enough 😦

    • Good to know; thanks Kurt. I haven’t gone the Surface route yet; I am impressed with the Pro 3 / Pro 4 device, but just haven’t pushed go on that yet. I too would like to try handwriting on the Surface, and maybe recognition … but not sure about the value of recognition when the notes are handwritten. I think re-looking at handwritten notes is more powerful than looking at transformed handwriting.

  2. Hi Michael I use my iPad at meeting as not only can I type faster than I write but I can actually READ what I type whereas I have difficulty reading what I write. Also easier to save it to the client file rather than keying it all in again later.

    • Thanks John. And do you find that you do a synthesis of what’s being said in a meeting or tend towards verbatim note taking? I would guess that you’d do more synthesis on the iPad, since most people I see don’t use them with external keyboards (and therefore you are typing on screen which would be annoying for verbatim note taking).

      • Hi Michael. you are correct – I do not try to record verbatum but record the important facts, committments, dates etc then transfer my iPad notes to uor system & fill-in with additional facts. That means anyone related to the project can read the notes, know what their obligations might be and understand where we are doing with it.

  3. Input mode is always interesting. As a tech reporter, I learned to type and transcribe while holding a conversation and considering the next question. This had some cognitive advantages, but was fairly exhausting. Typing creates a different relationship to the material than writing. Getting older, I have turned to voice recognition for writing. Dictation creates a different relationship with the material from either typing or writing. It can be even faster than typing, though the level of concentration required and the speed imposed by “conversation” is extremely wearing. I can see some different results in phrasing. So, a curiosity. And, always interesting.