Taking notes is a foundational element of building good study habits. It goes beyond simply copying words on a screen or a whiteboard, or writing the words that a lecturer is saying word-for-word.
Note taking helps us process the information that we receive in any setting, whether in class, a meeting or a self-study session. Note taking helps us remember the important concepts, terms and other pertinent information.
There has always been a debate about whether it’s better to take handwritten notes or typed notes. Educators, learning experts and researchers recommend taking handwritten notes because it helps with information processing and memory retention.
But what about typed notes? In a digital age where everything is going online and paperless, shouldn’t we at least consider alternatives?
Related reading: How to Take Study Notes – 7 Effective Note-Taking Methods
Good note taking
When you look up the term “notes” or “good notes”, you will see pretty, aesthetically pleasing notes on notebooks with impeccable handwriting and pastel highlights. However, good notes and good note taking skills have more to do with the content itself. Making it pretty is just a bonus.
For students, good notes are a condensed version of a chapter or a lecture. It not just about copying the keywords and their definitions in your own notebook or computer. It has to do with taking that information and putting it in terms that you understand.
When taking classes from experts and highly intelligent individuals, they may use jargon or move at a fast pace. The student has to be able to capture the important parts and details of these lectures and classes, and organize it in a way that helps them understand and remember these details.
Hand written notes
Taking handwritten notes promote cognitive processing. When taking notes by hand, we are forced to condense the information and write it in terms that we can understand.
Handwritten notes is ideal when it comes to dissecting and connecting concepts. This gives students the opportunity to engage with the learning material—remember concepts, dive deeper and make connections—encircle keywords, draw arrows between related concepts!
Handwritten notes help us recall information. When writing notes by hand, students are more “engaged” in the sense that they have to discern which parts of a lecture need to be remembered. Since handwriting is limited by a student’s writing speed and ability to process information, the student will likely take notes of the information they deem to be important. However, there is a risk of omitting important details for more complex class material.
Another important but often overlooked benefit of taking handwritten notes is that is allows students to practice their handwriting skills. Fine motor skills are an important developmental milestone.
In a digital world that places importance on typing speed and tapping on screens, many young students are not able to practice using their hands. When taking notes, not only are students able to practice information processing, they are also able to practice writing legibly.
There is an apparent preference for handwritten notes as opposed to typed notes among educators. The main issue with typed notes is that students focus more on typing everything that a teacher or lecturer says word-for-word without context. By focusing on typing, students are not able to process information and identify the key concepts and important details.
There is also the risk of students attempting to type notes and do other things at the same time. Students who type fast can spare a few seconds or minutes to do things that are not related to the task at hand. This can lead to distractions and can derail a student’s momentum.
However, typewritten notes have their place in the realm of note taking. Typing notes can be helpful in a lectures, especially when the speaker is going through the materials quite fast. Because it is faster to type than to write by hand, it might be better to type everything verbatim as the lecturer is speaking. The key is to review verbatim notes later on – paraphrase, rephrase and summarize the content. This will encourage the brain to process information.
Typed notes can be helpful with factual information. If you need to memorize important terms and concepts, it might be more efficient to just come up with a list of key words and their meanings.
Handwritten notes on a digital device
The world of information technology has found a way to merge the best parts of handwritten and typed notes. These days, there are apps that allow users to make handwritten notes on digital devices, specifically, tablets. Apps like GoodNotes and Notion can be downloaded on an iPad and synced with your personal laptop.
Although some features may vary, the general feature of these apps is that students can write on the surface of a tablet on the app as if they were writing on a notebook. These apps mimic the functions of a notebook while keeping everything paperless. The best thing is, it is stored digitally, further minimizing the need for paper notebooks and pens. This solves the problem of repeatedly purchasing writing materials and storage once the semester is over.
A note on distractions
The main concern about typing notes is the higher risk for distractions. You will essentially be working on digital devices where you can access websites, apps and files that can lead you astray from your task. One moment you’re looking up related content to the subject, the next thing you know, you’re looking at memes and random videos on the internet! It’s not just entertainment sites and social media that can distract—you might end up doing tasks for other subjects instead of listening to the lecture.
Opting to take handwritten notes might minimize distractions, but you can still get distracted. If your brain is already overwhelmed with information, you might unconsciously grab your mobile phone and start going through your emails and social media. Likewise, a few seconds of doodling might lead to a full-on daydream session.
The trick to this problem is to be aware when your mind starts to wander. If this happens, take a few minutes off to have a mental break. Stand up, take a sip of water and stretch your neck muscles. Keep this break brief so as not to break your momentum.
Which one to use?
Choosing which method to use depends on your personal preference and circumstances. Whereas handwritten notes encourages conceptual understanding, typewritten notes can be effective for memorization. Educators and researchers sing praises for hand written notes (and for good reason!), however, do not disregard typed notes as it can also be helpful.
Choosing the best method is a little more complex than you might think. Although personal preferences plays a role, there are other things to consider. In the online learning setting, students are forced to sit down and stare at their screens, while occasionally engaging in recitation.
Instead of passively listening and waiting for the teacher to send the PowerPoint slides, take notes, annotate your books and ask questions. There is a higher risk for distractions in online classes. One way to deal with this is to take notes.
Go for the method that allows you to focus. Typing might be best if you have physical difficulties that prevent you from writing fast enough or writing at all. It might also be a good option if you are unfamiliar with the topics being discussed and have yet to figure out which information is important. The good thing about typed notes is that it’s easier to come up with more comprehensive notes, edit and search through. It’s also easier to share with your peers.
Tips for taking notes
- Focus on the topic that you’re writing notes for, especially if you’re typing notes. If you’re unfamiliar with a certain concept, highlight it and don’t look it up on your browser as it might distract you from your flow. If you need to ask questions, ask the teacher or lecturer.
- Handwritten notes may not come out as neat and organized at first, but do not be discouraged. You may rewrite notes at a more convenient time. What’s important is that you’re able to take notes while the lesson is on-going.
- You will see more improvements the more you write notes. Your hand will hurt less, and your brain will get sharper at retaining important information. Keep going!
Effective note taking is an important part of the learning process. You can summarize and organize an entire semester’s worth of course content into notes that you can comprehend.
It’s a lot different from simply highlighting textbooks and readings because when you take notes, you are essentially rephrasing concepts, various terms and ideas in your own words. While handwriting notes helps with this process, typed notes can also be useful.
When it comes to note taking, the best method is the one you are using—that is to say, both are good. Having handwritten or typed notes is better than having none. The goal of any note taking method for students is to help a person develop a deeper understanding of study tools and materials so that these can be reviewed and remembered when needed.