Technology is meant to make your life easier. If it isn’t making your life easier, is it really technology?

This is meant to preface a new piece of research that I have stumbled upon. It deals with taking notes and how doing it by hand helps one remember as well as have a deeper understanding of the content.

According to the research, students who write out their notes on paper learn more than students that use laptops to write out their notes. If you know me, you might be surprised by me writing about this due to the fact that I am all about technology especially in the classroom. However, this brings me back to the first paragraph of this writing. If technology isn’t helping a situation, then is it technology? What we really should really be asking is whether it is the right kind of technology.

One could make an argument that a pen(cil) and paper are technology. By definition, this would be correct. In regards to the subject of this writing, pen(cil) and paper would be the right kind of technology.

Nowadays, education is being told that bigger, faster, and newer is better. However, it all depends on what the objective of the tech is. For example, few would argue that a car is more technologically advanced than a bicycle. If your objective is to get from point A to point B in a safe and small amount of time, using a car makes sense. On the other hand, if the objective is to get a cardiovascular workout while going from point A to point B, a car would not make sense. In the second case, a bicycle would make more sense. The objective is what is important.

Too often, in education, we find ourselves thinking the newest piece of technology is the best way to go because of the fact that it is new. The objective needs to be in mind when making these decisions and not the novelty. Pedagogy needs to always be thought of first rather than forcing a piece of technology into place.

In this case, the pen is mightier than the keyboard pedagogically speaking.

Summary of the research...

It has been shown that students who write out their notes on paper do in fact learn more. The scientists did three experiments in which students had to take notes in a classroom setting and then were tested afterwards for their memory, understanding, and ability to use the material/information. Half of the students took notes with a laptop while the other half wrote the notes by hand. Students who used laptops were able to take more notes. This makes sense given that most students can type faster than they can write by hand. However, the students that wrote their notes by hand understood the concepts and were better at using the content in higher order Bloom’s processes (namely, applying and synthesizing).

So... why does this occur? The scientists have their hypotheses. I like to think that the processes that are taking place when writing by hand matches our innate, evolutionary abilities to write, draw, and basically communicate with our hands. It’s part of our DNA to do this by hand. It’s how information has been passed down for thousands of years. This information is being broken down and encoded by us for us (or possibly someone else) to understand at a later time. There is more mental energy spent doing this. In contrast, typing on a laptop yields a more of a copying and less personalized means of encoding this information. Buttons are being pressed in a more robotic way. There’s no art or brain usage to it (comparatively). It’s the equivalent of “playing music” in Rock Band or Guitar Hero. You’re not really getting better at playing or understanding music. You are just rote playing.

This is not to say that computers shouldn’t be used in taking notes. The main issue is finding an app that can allow for the same type of “by hand” note taking that pen(cil) and paper offer. Some do exist, but still need some work in my opinion.

The research on this subject also breeds further implications. Namely, there is always (at least) one student each year that says that they “don’t need to take notes” and that “they learn best from listening”. This research seems to contradict these notions. Furthermore, what about those teachers that post their notes ahead of time for students to passively “pseudo-learn” from? Are teachers really helping the students by doing this?

A later post that I plan on writing will detail my opinions on what students should be taking notes on to begin with.

Until then...
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