While there may be very good reasons to be cautious about laptop use in the classroom – e.g., laptops with internet access may invite multitasking which is detrimental to the learning of the student engaging in multi-tasking, but also has negative effects on students sitting in proximity of the multitasker (2) – their use to take notes, it turns out, is not one of them. Or, put differently, based on the existing research evidence we have no grounds to make bold recommendations for or against laptop note-taking. A recent paper by Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson (3) highlights this point. They have directly recreated the original study setup of Mueller and Oppenheimer (using the same note-taking methods and study materials) and were unable to reproduce the original finding. Let’s take a closer look.
General study setup
Participants studied a TED video and took notes either longhand or on the laptop. After 30 minutes, all participants were given a final test with factual and conceptual questions.
Participants in the longhand note-taking condition performed better on conceptual questions than participants in the laptop note-taking condition. There was no difference in performance between the two note-taking conditions on factual questions.
Participants who took laptop notes produced notes with more words in them and with a larger verbatim overlap with the video compared to the longhand participants. One idea of the original researchers was that this could explain the superiority of longhand note-taking: Longhand notes contain more paraphrased and fewer verbatim statements which is more beneficial for knowledge retention.
Morehead, Dunlosky, and Rawson found that participants in the longhand note-taking condition performed better on factual questions than participants in the laptop note-taking condition. There was no difference in performance between the two note-taking conditions on conceptual questions. In a second experiment they found no significant difference between longhand versus laptop note-taking on an immediate test – in fact, in this experiment they included a “no note-taking group” and found that these participants did not perform worse than participants in any of the other note-taking groups (Below, I discuss this latter finding in the context of other contributing factors that need to be taken into consideration). Thus, the results pattern directly contradicts the original findings.
In the new study, the researchers added a delayed test condition, to test if the effect would hold when participants’ knowledge is assessed two days later. In two experiments, they found that note-taking method had no effect on delayed test performance (factual + conceptual questions). Thus, on a test given two days after studying it made no difference how notes were taken.