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My students are all highly inclined to take notes on their computers. There are some obvious advantages:

  • The students absolutely prefer it.
  • They can easily search through their notes later.
  • Since their computers are out, we can easily do code-alongs or other short coding exercises.

However, I also read that taking notes on a computer leads to poor retention and comprehension. I have been considering banning computerized notes, and requiring either handwritten note taking or telling students to forego notetaking altogether, and simply giving them my powerpoints after the lecture is over.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a classroom policy. Which is better?

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    $\begingroup$ Just from my experience as a student, computer out == doing whatever you want. $\endgroup$ – thesecretmaster Jun 1 '17 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ Mostly,I want my students to have their computers when we are creating code. They should also keep a written notebook. $\endgroup$ – ncmathsadist Jun 1 '17 at 11:45
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    $\begingroup$ Using the computer, personal or school-supplied, during labs and generating code is, of course, fine. During the lecture, to take notes, can often be a different issue. A nice synergy can be found by creating "lectures" that are "follow-along" style where what's being said/done by the instructor is replicated or utilized by the students on their terminals. You access the visual learners, the auditory learners, and the kinesthetic learners (VAK or VAKT learning styles). It also has everyone using the keyboards, so no one is distracted by the typing of others. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Jun 3 '17 at 3:13
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    $\begingroup$ I call these code-alongs, and I agree that they're extremely valuable! $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jun 3 '17 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ from my experience - laptop out for practical lessons - as @GypsySpellweaver says, some people learn best by doing. If students save code samples - that's the majority of their notes right there. for theory however - pencil and paper. It's far faster to get information down, especially when it involves diagrams etc. $\endgroup$ – Baldrickk Nov 1 '17 at 17:14

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Neither is better. What is true for one student may not be for another.

Studies can show trends. Students are not trends; they are individuals.

As an example I encountered today that seems to go against that wisdom, I caught a news piece about a local girl in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. As she spelled the word she was moving her fingers in a weird fashion. Half-way through the word I recognized what she was doing. She was "typing" the word as she spelled it. She was able to remember how to spell the word by remembering how she would type it.

I have personally attended classes with someone who "doodled" their notes. She drew random-looking doodles, not pictures or pictographs, as the instructor presented. Later she was able to translate her doodles better than I could translate my long-hand notes. She also scored better on the fact-based questions than most of the class.

There is one major drawback to laptop note taking in class, however: noise. Few keyboards are truly silent, and the key noise, even if it's just the sound of fingernails hitting the plastic, can be very distracting to other students.

If you're willing to allow it, and school policy does not prohibit it, a third option is audio recording.

I've only been in one classroom where computers were allowed to be on, and it was distracting. I've never allowed them to be used when I lecture, or even during study time unless it's also lab time.

What seems to work best for situations involving lots of data, especially where layout and syntax can be significant, is to provide the lecture material in some manner after the lecture has been delivered. That could be done via Google Drive, or some other online source. Online access allows the student to retrieve it when they need it without having to access it immediately after the lecture. It also helps for the disadvantaged students that may not have laptops to bring to school. They can access it from the library, or any other source of online access.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1. That is a very good explanation. Also, the spelling bee example is quite interesting. $\endgroup$ – ItamarG3 Jun 1 '17 at 5:38
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    $\begingroup$ At first I thought the girl had a problem with motor control until I recognized her finger motions matching letter placement on the keyboard. If I hadn't taught touch typing I probably would have missed it completely. Still, everyone has their unique way of processing information. Studies or no studies. $\endgroup$ – Gypsy Spellweaver Jun 1 '17 at 5:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think modern kids keyboard from an early age, so motor memory of spelling is very common. It's a "spinal cord" level phenomenon. $\endgroup$ – ncmathsadist Jun 1 '17 at 11:47
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I recently had a group of students that didn't take notes at all. They were in University classes and no one, apparently, had taught them how to learn. I asked one student why, and he just pointed to his head - it's here. But of course photographic memory isn't true for all but a vanishingly small proportion of our students. In order to learn something you need to be engaged with it, not just watch it pass by. I'm pretty sure that court stenographers don't retain anything of the court proceedings they record. It is just mechanical.

Stay tuned for my solution, below.

I worry, and think the research supports me, that typing notes in class is just mechanical. Like hi-lighting lines in a textbook. Little if anything is learned then. If you lecture and just want the students to transmit your ides to their computers, then just give them the lectures as rich text. But having something in your computer (or on wikipedia) isn't the same as having it in your head. So, as an instructor, you should ask yourself what it is that you want the students to be able to do with the information you transmit. Do you just want them to have it available? Or do you want them to be able to truly know it and act on it. If the latter, then you need to help them learn to be more active and engaged in their learning - as my students were not.

I usually take notes on things by computer. But my only goal is to keep access to it, not to truly know it. No problems. If I want to know something I solve problems or write code using it. Learning is doing. Doing is learning.

Writing by hand is much better than typing, even with bad penmanship. The brain is more engaged and you are changing the wiring of the brain as you do it. However, that isn't enough. You have to do something with those notes if you want to learn it. If you just write it out and file it, little is learned.

This was my solution:

I made sure every student had a Hipster PDA, which cost almost nothing as the U was happy to give each student a binder clip and they were happy enough to go in together to purchase the cards. Students were encouraged to put a sentence or two on a (fresh) card when they heard a key idea. For the last minute or so of each class I'd ask a few students to read to me from the cards of the day one key idea from the lecture (though it wasn't usually true lecturing). I might comment, usually, just by saying yes or no (or maybe YES). At the beginning of the next class I'd ask for the three most important ideas from the previous class. Or perhaps, ask for a one sentence summary of the previous lecture. Out come the cards...

I also encouraged the students to prepare a summary card for each lecture. Just one card. Just a couple of sentences, not the tiny print we used to use when allowed to bring a sheet of notes to an exam (remember that?). Just big ideas.

Moreover, I encouraged students to use the pda in other courses and to carry it about with them. They spent time on subways, generally, so the pda provided an easy way to review the day's activities and learning or prepare for the upcoming day. The valedictorian in my undergraduate class used this trick. He was never without a few cards for review.

Students don't need to capture every word in most cases and if they really do, then give it to them straight. I'm sure you heard the joke "The purpose of a lecture is to transmit the instructor's notes to the student's notebook without going through the mind of either." Make it active. With my students it was actually kind of campy - an in-group ritual.

Note that I also lectured from my own hipster pda and kept a card for each student, etc.


A separate reason for taking notes by hand with a good pen or pencil on good paper: It will be hard to convince your students of this, but they may need (as I have needed) to review notes taken 40 years or more ago. My student lecture notes were put into folders and filed away. I recently needed and was able to find a paper I wrote as a high-school student about 1961. Paper lasts, digital media is problematic. The physical media may deterioriate but the file formats may not be available in a few years. How much important stuff do you have on floppy disks? How about 8" floppy disks.

I'd especially recommend archiving notes on paper for any student planning an academic career. This is most important, of course, for your major courses, but also for things you love the most. Paper lasts. See: https://xkcd.com/1909/


On November 22, 2017, the New York Times published a piece in Business Day. Here is the money quote:

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

The author is Susan Dynarski is a professor of education, public policy and economics at the University of Michigan.


As an update: I've just been given information that a certain large university has banned laptops from the classroom. My correspondent, who wishes to remain anonymous, points out the following information:

Ban improves grades and also students are fine with it https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/05/11/ohio-state-professors-technology-ban-finds-positive-reaction-and-results

Even students not using electronics seem harmed if others do: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/07/27/class-cellphone-and-laptop-use-lowers-exam-scores-new-study-shows

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360131512002254

Humans simply cannot multitask https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794

https://hbr.org/2010/12/you-cant-multi-task-so-stop-tr

Multitasking may actually damage your brain https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/288829

They report that they run "active lectures" (talk a bit, then students work on problems in small groups, repeat), and have compared electronic and paper approaches. Paper works just fine.

The ban is working great.

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    $\begingroup$ This is one of my favorite things I have ever read on this site. It practically guarantees deep cognitive engagement. I know we try to avoid "thank you" messages on SE sites, but an upvote really does not suffice here. Holy cow... ! Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jun 27 '17 at 23:47
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I agree with the comment from thesecretmaster. I've observed a lot of CS classes at Denison in the last few years (part of our peer mentoring program for new professors) and I'm convinced students do not have the ability to resist using their computers to check facebook, email, MLB, etc. Even for very engaging lectures, students will still drift to these websites. Worse, when one student does it, others sitting behind them also start to go to facebook. I think it's this logic of "I know this is wrong, but Billy's doing it, so I guess that means I can too"

As a result of witnessing this behavior on so many occasions, I don't allow laptops to be open if I'm at the front of the room talking. I usually have worksheets for students and I force them to get a binder to organize all the worksheets over the semester. If it's a lecture without a worksheet, I tell them to take notes in their binder. If a computer appears, I'll ask the student to put it away till the coding part of class. After the lecture/activity, I'll say "okay, now it's your turn. Get your laptops out and do problem 4 on the sheet." Then it's clear we have a laptop part of class and a non-laptop part, every day. When their laptops are out, I'm walking around helping them with bugs or when they get stuck, so they don't dare open facebook. Our classes have 24 students, and this seems to work.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm convinced students do not have the ability to resist using their computers to check facebook, email, MLB, etc Do keep in mind that these activities are easier to prove/observe than e.g. daydreaming or simply not paying attention, and your comparison of the two options may be more skewed than you think it is. $\endgroup$ – Flater Oct 17 '18 at 11:20
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I think that in many cases the act of writing does help in the act of understanding and learning so there is a value to taking notes (which is also a problem when there are powerpoint handouts - particularly when the teacher basically just reads the slides).

For me, I seem to retain more when hand writing notes unless I focus on the note taking when typing on the computer.

The computer is also an inferior device for note taking in terms of annotations, images, equations etc. although that might not always be true.

Another point to consider is "does the kid type?" If a student has to think about the keys they're hitting it takes focus away from the material. This might sound silly but when we write by hand, we just write we don't think about the letters.

Finally, we have the distraction component. Not only for the kids with the computer who may or may not be distracted but also for the kids neighbors.

At the end of the day, Gypsy Spellweaver got it just right by saying "Studies can show trends. Students are not trends; they are individuals." - this is my problem with most education "research" (intentionally in quotes). It's really a case by case thing. There have been classes where I've had to ask students not to take notes on computer but many more where it's worked well.

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In classroom sessions where I use presentations, prior to the session, I provide the students with access to a PDF of the presentation in which I have replaced select keywords, definitions, and other important items with blank lines. The goal is to keep the students engaged by having them write in the missing parts.

Most students print paper copies of these PDFs and fill in the blanks on those paper copies. But the past couple of semesters, a handful of students who own MS Surface or tablet devices with a stylus have been bringing those devices to class, downloading the PDF to their device, and using their stylus to write their notes directly onto the PDF.

This practice might provide the best of both worlds:

  • These students (writing with a stylus on a tablet or Surface) would seemingly be engaging the same cognitive processes as students who are writing longhand on a piece of paper.

  • These students also have to write a lot less than students who (for whatever reason) do not avail themselves of the PDF and try to write everything down. That should provide them with extra cognitive space to synthesize and understand the material.

  • These students would have most of the advantages of those with a laptop -- searchable notes, access to Internet resources, etc.

  • One disadvantage is that unlike laptop users, these students cannot code directly on their device. However, this can be mitigated if the instructor has students use their browsers to access a web/cloud-based IDE (e.g., Cloud9, Koding, etc.).

Of course the Surface/tablet users also suffer some of the same disadvantages as laptop users (e.g., distractions, temptation to multitask, etc.).

I don't have any solid data on how these students perform compared to students who use pencil-and-paper (or laptops) -- the number of these students is too small to generate statistically significant results -- but if the numbers were sufficiently large, it would be interesting to study how these students do compared to a) their peers using pencil-and-paper, and b) students taking notes on laptops.

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    $\begingroup$ I love this practice. It does require a fair amount of organization. I will try this on a unit in the fall and see how it goes. $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jun 25 '17 at 20:56
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I absolutely allow students to take notes on laptops and always did worse when I didn't have that option as a student. Most students can type faster and (obviously) neater than they can write. I've experienced and heard from others that they'll be so focused on writing everything the lecturer is writing or typing that they won't actually listen and process and be able to ask useful questions.

I think the trends vs individuals is key and that means letting individuals have both options. If students are inclined to not pay close attention, they'll either check Facebook or daydream or fall asleep anyway. Further, advanced students may be bored when you are discussing something they already understand. I personally would rather students show up and participate for half the time than not show up at all or fall asleep. It seems to me a good opportunity to help them develop as learners and people by encouraging them to listen because they know it will be valuable to them, not because you have trapped them in a room. Obviously it's naive to think all students will manage that, but as mentioned previously, if they aren't going to pay attention, taking away their laptops won't stop them.

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I encourage my students to keep notes on paper, but I have them use their computers when we are experimenting with code. We do a lot of code examples in class. Standard practice is for them to open their programming environments as soon as they arrive so their computers are ready for business.

Our kids have laptops. When I want them to take notes on paper or I want them to focus specifically on what I am doing, I say, "It's time to put your computer at 'third mast';" this means to put the lid down not all the way so their desktop session is undisturbed.

Most studens find this combination to be effective.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think I'm going to do something very much like this next year, and ask for regular notes to be taken without the computer when appropriate. This seems like a good compromise. $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jun 21 '17 at 13:49
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I strongly agree with the first two lines of Gypsy Spellweaver's answer:

Neither is better. What is true for one student may not be for another.

Studies can show trends. Students are not trends; they are individuals.

(emphasis original)

Sure, laptops have their benefits. When typing, I can put down far more words per minute than when hand-writing, plus I don't have to worry about legibility dropping. I usually open up to a notepad program and nothing else when in this situation.

But in most cases, the temptation is too great. After that browser's already open, it takes a lot to focus back on the lesson. A lot of people never even start there. I've been in graduate school classes with students who had their laptops open to full-screen Facebook, and next to 50-year-old career changers paying for second degrees doing the same thing. On the other hand, some of the most successful moderators on Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange are teenagers (or, at least, were, when they were elected). I think the answer here comes down to the maturity level of the specific students you happen to have in your class, which is something only you can know.

I see the value in "code-alongs" and other in-class coding exercises, but I don't buy that laptops are essential for such activities. There are several alternatives.

  • Pencil and paper. Have 'em write it out instead of typing it out. Students are likely to push back on this because of some misguided association between computers and code, but let's face it, computer science is ultimately more about thought processes than the act of coding. If your brain understands the reason why that recursion works, does it really matter whether you wrote it on paper or on a screen?

  • A separate computer lab. I've been fortunate enough to always attend and work at schools that offer computer labs. Often, they were adjacent to or at least near CS classrooms. If that's the case for you, you could "save up" the code examples from the lecture portion of your class (maybe have the students write out some quick ideas as pseudocode) before heading into the lab to try them out. That was very effective for lower-level CS classes when I was a student.

  • No-stress pop quizzes. If you don't have a lab, you could always fall back on a technique other disciplines have been using for years: the in-class, ungraded survey. Introduce a new concept, then put up a slide with a multiple-choice option and say "Which of these is the correct way to implement what we just talked about in Java?" One option might have a syntax error, another might have an off-by-one error, that sort of thing. When I was an undergrad, I had to buy a fancy electronic "clicker" that was set up to interface with a receiver in the lecture hall so my response could be tracked for a participation grade. For a smaller class, I like the idea of holding up colored or numbered cards. (This also keeps people engaged throughout lectures... not to imply that you're a boring teacher!)

  • Discussion. Always a mixed bag of an option, but you can try taking pair programming to the extreme and writing the code "on the big screen" by soliciting input from the students.

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As an undergraduate student, I like to take my notes in LaTeX. Whilst I can write the LaTeX on paper (and then type it up later) it is nice to have the opportunity to use an IDE to be able to compile the document and preview it. I do this for a few different reasons: I can type faster than I can write, and often the pace of the lecture makes it difficult to take notes on paper. LaTeX is also great for typesetting math and I have a set of common commands/environments I use for including reading material references, tips for the examination etc.

At the end of the year, it's easy to put together a set of revision notes. This makes it significantly easier to type up past exam question answers too: once you've typeset a few NFAs/DFAs with TikZ it gets easier!

There are a few disadvantages with this. I will admit there have been times in some modules where I've been distracted by IRC or reddit. I've then had to revisit that material prior the exam with little to no notes. Additionally, sometimes I'm not familiar with the area of mathematics we are covering, and have to resort to looking up how to typeset certain things. I'm generally getting better though, and this approach makes it really easy to share question attempts and notes with others.

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I would make them (and in my classes, it is mandatory) take notes on a computer.

  • The hassle of pen and paper is avoided. Sure, it is second nature for them to write on a paper and I understand that.
  • The constant switching between the pen + paper and the computer keyboard is also avoided. That saves a ton of time.
  • On a more practical note, the desk space that would otherwise be occupied by the large book is saved.
  • Digital notes can be easily shared from the student to me, and from me to the student. Editing is easy, and its easy to organise.
  • Less chance of them losing their notes.

So yeah, they already have a computer, and since I assume they are all internet enabled (they should be if they are learning computer science), note taking on laptop is the way to go.

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  • $\begingroup$ I agree very much with the practical considerations you've outlined here. When I think about this issue in my own classroom, I worry more about attentional and learning aspects, and I'm not sure if I'm getting this right. Welcome to Computer Science Educators! I hope we hear more from you around the site. $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Aug 20 '17 at 13:57
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    $\begingroup$ And of course I totally disagree, but welcome to the site and we look forward to your future contributions. Interesting profile too. $\endgroup$ – Buffy Aug 20 '17 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ Folks, thank you for the welcome. When you say attentional, I am guessing, you are referring to the laptop itself becoming a source of distraction aka causing them to lose attention. In the beginning, I used to worry about but after a while I told myself that, at some point I got to trust my students to do the right thing. Which is to take notes and not use the computer for something else. $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 20 '17 at 15:54
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(This answer is from cdsmith on reddit. CDSmith does not wish to post here, but did not mind if the answer that they provided was also posted here, which is being done in an attempt to add value to both communities:)

I teach at a much younger age, but just for kicks, here's what I do for middle school students.

  1. I actually try to avoid note-taking, because I try to avoid lecturing for long enough that it's worth time for them to take out paper and writing instruments. So there are opportunities for significant note-taking maybe once every three classes.
  2. Notes are taken by hand. I just cannot keep everyone on-task while lecturing unless I instruct them to close computers.
  3. I give them a structured outlines to fill in for notes, but try to ensure that the outline organizes the content in a different way from the lecture. The goal is to move them from transcribing the words of the lecture to summarizing into their own synopsis, with some original thought about the meaning.

This form of structured note-taking would obviously be resented at the college age, and I'm not advocating it there. But it wouldn't be awful advice to give at the college level as well.

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(This answer is from ImaginationGeek on reddit. ImaginationGeek does not wish to post here, but did not mind if the answer that they provided was also posted here, which is being done in an attempt to add value to both communities:)

The responses here seem well intentioned, but have a few faulty assumptions.

  1. “Students are adults.” Legally, yes (with a few uncommon exceptions). However, there is a huge gulf of maturity between an 18 year old and the same person at 23. For that matter, the 23 year old will continue to mature for several more years... Of course there is individual variance, but don’t overestimate how mature college students actually are.

  2. “They know what note taking method works best for them.” I doubt it, in most cases. Most of them probably can’t actually distinguish what helps them learn best... they do know what helps them take notes the easiest and may assume that’s best, but for learning it’s usually not. Also, they only know what they’ve tried, and probably don’t think to try different things (especially “harder” ones), let alone research and seek out novel alternatives they may not have thought of before.

  3. The unstated assumption: “Their note taking choice affects only them.” Superficially, this is true... but when their “choice” is to take notes on a laptop, but then they end up on (e.g.) Facebook and the students behind them are watching over their shoulder, their choice is then distracting other students. (You won’t know from the front of the classroom whether they have OneNote or Twitter open on their laptop. You think you will but you won’t - just do a classroom observation and you’ll see.)

So what do I do? Well, I do leave it up to them mostly, but I don’t allow electronic devices, with a few exceptions... they 1. are not as effective for learning as hand written notes and 2. it’s too hard to draw the kinds of technical diagrams that my classes use.

So far, I have been allowing tablets with a stylus, if they ask me, because that fixes #2 and all the research I know if for #1 is based on keyboard input, so it’s not clear which way stylus input falls for actual learning... (if anyone has info about stylus notes, please let me know!)

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I conduct hands-on, interactive workshops, which means there is a lot of discussion on any concept I teach, and after some discussion the attendees start coding.

I don't allow the computer to be open when we're discussing something in the classroom because it causes distractions. With laptops closed, they're fully focused, and when it's time for coding they can get back to their laptops.

I understand that different people have different learning mechanisms, but for trainings that I conduct, I've noticed a big difference in learnings when the laptops are closed.

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I've been a software engineer for over 20 years and over time I have finally gotten out of the habit of taking notes by hand. Part of this is because my handwriting is terrible, and part of it is that I am literally always in front of a computer.

I do not find that I retain information any worse when take notes on the computer, and I type much faster than I can write so I can record more information.

That said, I am a doodler and a visual thinker and being able to draw pictures and diagrams is important for me to understand, remember and communicate things. It is hard to find good programs on the computer that let you do this as easily as whipping out a pen and paper.

At my kids elementary school, they stopped teaching cursive in favor of typing. I think that speaks volumes.

If you do let the kids use a computer you will need to lock that down somehow or they will be surfing the web or playing games or texting their friends.

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    $\begingroup$ FWIW the research (rather perversely) showed a pattern of computerized notes resulting in better self-rating of understanding, but worse outcomes on simple recall tests. So it is possible that you are falling victim to an illusion here. Also, FWIW I also usually personally take notes on a computer because it's so darned convenient. So, I am just as much a hypocrite as the next guy :) $\endgroup$ – Ben I. Jun 26 '17 at 15:01

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