For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. – H. L. Mencken
If you are a fan of stationery and nice pens, as I am, you will have been pleased by the discovery by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) that taking notes by hand is better for you than taking notes using a laptop. Their conclusion is clear: “laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”
But unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as that. Like the often repeated but incorrect belief that 93% of communication is non-verbal you need to dig a little deeper to understand what’s going on.
A review of the literature by Jansen, Lakens and IJsselsteijn (2017) found that some studies show notetaking with laptops works better, while others prefer longhand. There are many factors to consider, such as the way information is presented, the way people take notes, differences in cognitive capability between people and the way in which understanding is tested.
They find, for example, some studies that show that taking notes worsens recall while other studies show the opposite. The link between taking notes and how much you remember varies with whether you’re reading or listening to the content, how fast it’s coming at you, whether you can go over it again and again or not, whether you copy it exactly or say it in your own words, whether you use an outline, or words or a diagram. Learning is complicated stuff.
Jansen et. al. suggest that we should look at cognitive load theory to understand what’s going on – the amount of effort your brain puts into the task and what it spends that effort on doing.
When you’re trying to learn something there are five main things you do. You need to understand the material, you need to pick the points that are important, you need to connect them with other ideas that you know and that are relevant, you need to restate the ideas in your own words and finally you need to write them down. That’s a lot of stuff that’s going on.
It’s not surprising that there isn’t one perfect system that will sort you out every time. What you need to do is figure out a way of learning that lets you engage at a deeper level with the material. Copying it out exactly or taking notes verbatim is a surface level of understanding. Picking out ideas and relating them to other ideas is a deeper level. Saying these ideas in your own words starts you on the path of making them your own which you finish by creating a piece of written work that is ready for the world.
We visited Ironbridge this weekend, a place known as a symbol of the Industrial Revolution. We saw a candle maker’s workshop where the owner and his children made candles all day, boiling down the fat from carcasses – a dangerous, difficult and smelly job. They were one of the richest families in the town, but carried the stench with them – and the term “stinking rich” originates with this kind of job.
These days what we’re aiming for is to be the “thinking rich” – and to do that we need the ability to boil down knowledge by taking good notes and creating something valuable.