In classrooms (as well as in many other places), laptops are becoming the norm. It's no doubt that technology allows for cool abilities inside and outside of the classroom — such as data sharing and online collaborative activities. Yet it also turns out that laptops hinder rather than help learning.
Studies with hundreds of college students at Princeton and UCLA conducted by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer show that students who relied on their laptops for note-taking wrote down lengthier and more “complete” notes each time; but the students who put old-fashioned pen-to-paper ended up with a stronger conceptual understanding of the material covered. Regardless of their less “complete” notes, the pen-to-paper students were more successful in retaining, applying, and integrating the material covered.
Why in the world would that be?
Mueller and Oppenheimer concluded that taking notes by hand requires different cognitive processing than making records on a laptop. And these differences have notable implications for learning. Writing down notes with pen and paper is slower and arguably takes more work than typing. Because of this, students who write their notes by hand aren't able to write down every word in a given lecture verbatim. Instead, they have to pay closer attention to digest and summarize the information in their own words. In short, writing by hand forces the brain to actively process information and engage in some heavy “mental lifting” promoting comprehension and retention.
By contrast, when typing notes on a computer, students can easily produce a written record of was said word-for-word without actually devoting much thought to the content or processing its meaning. In fact, higher verbatim note taking was associated with lower retention rates of lecture material because it appears that students using computers can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion requiring little analysis or synthesis by the brain. Essentially, the words go in the ears and out the fingertips. This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote meaningful understanding or application of the information.
Even when laptop users were instructed to summarize the information and put notes in their own words, they showed no boost in performance of synthesizing the information (perhaps because of how easy it is to revert to mindless typing — I'm sure we can all relate). In addition, when students were tested on the material a week later (and given a chance to study their notes), it was the students who took longhand notes who outperformed the computer-users once again. It may be that notes written in the students' own words and handwriting contain memory cues recreating thought processes, emotions, and conclusions in addition to the content from the original learning session.
Lecture notes and outlines are often made available by professors for the students' convenience, but according to the study results, this practice also doesn't support learning.
Not to mention that laptops also pose other threats in the classroom. The research in this study was conducted with computers not connected to the Internet, which isn't usually the case in the real world. With instant messaging, social media notifications, and a gazillion other online distractions, other studies show that students who use laptops spent 40% of class time using unrelated applications. In one experiment with law school students, nearly 90% of laptop users engaged in online activities unrelated to coursework for at least five minutes, and roughly 60% were distracted for half the class.
Learning involves more than just the recording of and regurgitation of information. While technology can be a valuable tool to assist education, it benefits us when used as an extension of our intelligence and not a substitute for good old-fashioned brain power.