Best Way to Take Notes In Class Isn't On Your Laptop, (bad) Research Finds

The best way to learn is not to have classes that demand that you take notes to remember their content in the first place. But, putting that very obvious objection to one side for a moment…

This describes one of those awful bits of research that pays no heed to the fact that there are infinitely many ways to take notes and many different purposes behind doing so, nor that there are massive differences between individuals.


  1. your intent is to remember what someone is telling you,
  2. you are determined to keep lots of distracting tools open while you are taking notes,
  3. you are not as good at typing as you are with writing with a pen or pencil 
  4. you have an uncontrollable urge to transcribe rather than reflect when taking notes with a computer,
  5. your tools do not include tablets with rich note-keeping features that you are reasonably proficient with, and
  6. you are a pretty average learner,

then, perhaps, on average (with notable exceptions), you might be better off using a pen or a pencil. Or, at least, you should learn how to use a laptop more effectively.

I’m not suggesting you should always use a laptop. There are plenty of occasions when pens etc are normally more useful (or at least more convenient), for instance if you are the rapporteur for a group or you are sharing a piece of paper, a flip chart or a whiteboard. There are good high-tech solutions for such things but they are expensive, often fragile, and typically come with a learning curve. Such things are not for everyone, at least, not all of the time. But, to suggest that you should not take notes with a laptop is to completely miss the point. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. See my previous post on a similarly harmful bit of nonsense for more reasons you might prefer to take notes electronically at least some of the time.

The mediaeval pedagogies are the cause of the problems, not the note taking or use of laptops during lectures. I don’t mind teachers suggesting that it is probably not a good idea to do something that demands effort while doing something else that also demands effort. That’s just common sense advice, like warning people not to text and drive. But, if teachers didn’t force people to learn in a hugely ineffective, coercive, power-crazed fashion in the first place, as though centuries of pedagogical research had never happened, none of this would be a problem at all. Nor would it be a problem if, instead of telling students to give up their really useful tools, teachers went to the trouble of helping them to learn how to use them more effectively. That would be more like teaching. Maybe the teachers would learn something in the process too.


Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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