When entering their first classes of the semester, students are often apprehensive as they wait to hear the professor’s policy on laptops in class. While insisting on handwritten notes is not the norm at McGill, some professors nonetheless present students with articles and studies that explain how writing notes by hand improves memory, helps with the absorption of information, and is generally the best way to become a successful student.
The campus culture that classifies handwritten notes as ‘best’ or simply ‘better than’ typed notes homogenizes education and labels a student’s learning process as either right or wrong. While taking notes by hand benefits some—possibly even most—students, insisting upon it can create stressful and even inhospitable learning environments.
Despite its alleged positive impact on memory, handwriting notes lacks the accessibility of computers. While professors make exceptions for students with learning and physical disabilities, simply having messy or slow handwriting can disadvantage a student in the classroom. For those accustomed to typing their notes, taking notes by hand can be a grueling process that actually inhibits the absorption of information. Given that today’s students type much faster than they can write, handwritten notes often devolve into a game of catch-up with the professor: If students have to put most of their focus towards maintaining the professor’s speed, simply writing the words down takes priority over what the professor is actually saying.
These frantic notes may be messy, disorganized, and barely-legible, whereas computer programs such as Onenote or Evernote can be extremely useful in organizing important subjects and trains-of-thought. A student struggling to keep up with the professor likely doesn’t have the time to even write legibly, let alone highlight information. This chaotic transcription of a lecture can ultimately leave a student feeling stressed or disoriented, neither of which are optimal mental states for retaining course material. In an attempt to limit distractions and help students succeed, a professor may not realize the alternatively detrimental learning environment that insistence on handwritten notes creates.
Typing notes on a computer is admittedly not without its faults. Considering students’ constant exposure to the internet, allowing laptops in class inevitably opens those students up to an infinite number of distractions. These tend to have a snowball effect, in that someone surfing Facebook can distract the person behind them, and so on and so forth.
However, this possibility of distraction does not necessarily warrant a laptop ban, especially when one considers how teaching methods have evolved to incorporate, and even benefit from, digital media. Learning is not confined to spoken lectures; instead, professors employ a variety of digital aids such as powerpoints, music, videos, and images to augment their lessons. This shift towards a digital classroom recognizes that students learn in a variety of ways. For example, a visual learner retains information better with images or other visual cues. Likewise, an aural learner benefits from the presence and assistance of music or other sounds. These different learning methods intersect and overlap, making it impossible to suggest one student learns better than another.
Learning is a highly individual process. Just as the mode of presentation affects how a student absorbs information, so does the way a student takes notes. If it is agreed upon that the diversification of teaching styles should be encouraged, then it is equally important to allow for diversity in note-taking. Just because a student takes notes on a computer does not make him or her a poor or ineffectual learner. Students should be encouraged and allowed the freedom to discover which learning methods work best for them, rather than adhering to someone else’s definition of ‘proper learning.’