A Quick Tip to Take Better Notes in Pharmacy School

Pharmacy students can better retain information if they take notes using pen and paper instead of a laptop.

Pharmacy students can better retain information if they take notes using pen and paper instead of a laptop.

Given that laptops have become ubiquitous in classrooms, some studies have examined how multitasking and Internet distractions can disrupt learning. Previous research has also shown that many professors have negative feelings toward laptop use in classrooms, while students self-report that laptops are beneficial even if they do lead to some distractions.

Now, a new study published in Psychological Science argues that students who take notes on laptops may impair their learning because of “shallower processing” of information.

The study authors sought to determine which group (pen-and-paper notetakers or laptop notetakers) performed better on test questions when distractions from laptops were taken out of consideration.

The researchers found that laptop notetakers jotted down more notes due to the ease and speed of typing, which is a plus, but they also tended to copy down the information verbatim instead of reframing the material in their own words. The researchers defined these 2 behaviors as generative (paraphrasing) or nongenerative (copying down material verbatim) note-taking.

“Studies have shown both correlationally and experimentally that verbatim note taking predicts poorer performance than nonverbatim note taking, especially on integrative and conceptual items,” they stated.

The researchers argued that the ability to transcribe could improve what’s called “external storage,” which refers to the act of reviewing notes.

They conducted 3 experiments. The first involved 67 students from Princeton University who watched TED Talks that were “interesting, but not common knowledge.” The laptops they used couldn’t access the Internet.

After watching a lecture, the participants performed a pair of 5-minute distractor tasks and completed a working memory task. After 30 minutes had passed since the lecture ended, the students were then asked to respond to questions about the lecture.

The questions could be something like, “How many years ago did the civilization exist?” or questions about how 2 societies differed.

The researchers found that for “factual-recall” questions like the one about how long ago a civilization existed, there wasn’t a significant difference between the laptop notetakers and the pen-and-paper students.

On the more conceptual questions, however, the laptop notetakers performed significantly worse, even though they wrote down many more words than the pen-and-paper notetakers. The laptop notes contained an average of 14.6% words verbatim, while the pen-and-paper notes contained 8.8%.

“[M]indless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review,” the researchers said.

While taking lots of notes was beneficial, the key was taking notes that were reframed in the students’ own words.

“This study provides initial experimental evidence that laptops may harm academic performance even when used as intended,” the authors concluded.

In the second study, the researchers told the laptop notetakers not to copy down notes verbatim. Nevertheless, the longhand notetakers performed better on conceptual questions.

In the third study, the researchers sought to determine whether laptop notetakers benefitted more from better external storage because of their lengthier notes.

The participants took notes on a lecture and were told that they would be tested on the material the next week. Some of the students were given 10 minutes to study their notes before taking the test, while the other group took the test immediately.

When looking at the group of students who weren’t able to review their notes, there wasn’t a significant difference in scores between the laptop and longhand note-taking students.

“We believe this is due to the difficulty of test items after a week’s delay and a subsequent floor effect; average scores were about one-third of the total points available,” the researchers noted.

Among the students who were able to review their notes, the researchers found that those who took longhand notes did better than the laptop notetakers.

“Laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good,” the researchers concluded.