The pros and cons of taking notes by hand

With the transition from in-person to online lectures, one thing is certain: How students engage with course material remains important, and this includes taking effective notes. Because of the online format, however, students now have the freedom to watch recorded lectures at their own pace and no longer have to type frantically to keep up with their professors. Typing out notes is faster, which comes in handy when there is a lot of information to digest in a short amount of time, but now that students are able to pause, slow down, or speed up lectures, taking notes by hand is a more viable alternative. Below, The McGill Tribune investigates the pros and cons of  taking handwritten notes. 

Note-taking can be categorized into two types: Generative and non generative. While generative note-taking uses paraphrasing and summarizing, non generative note-taking involves transcribing something verbatim. Research shows that students who write out their notes on paper remember information better because they listen, digest, and paraphrase to capture the essence of the material rather than type up a transcript of the lecture, which involves little cognitive processing of the content. 

Thus, the main issue with typing is that students tend to transcribe whatever the lecturer says without much thought. People who write notes by hand tend to give more consideration as to what they should write down, which leads to more effective learning. 

Beyond being able to retain lecture material more effectively, there are other benefits to taking notes by hand. Hayley Mauricio, U3 Science, explained why she prefers taking notes the old-fashioned way.

“I find that whenever I type out my notes during class, I get easily distracted,” Mauricio said.  “Because I’m on my laptop, I’ll use Facebook, check my emails, or message my friends when I should be listening to the lecture. Having just a notebook and pencil on my desk keeps me focussed as I’m not tempted by other applications.”

However, the benefits of handwritten notes do not negate any practical benefits of digital note taking. Some studies that compared the effects of handwriting notes to typing notes utilized immediate memory tests administered shortly after note-taking sessions, which is not representative of real classroom settings as students are assessed weeks after learning new material. Additionally, writing notes by hand is more cumbersome, which can be problematic during long lectures. Tracy Liu, U3 Science, shared why she is committed to typing notes.

“I make a lot of mistakes when taking notes, whether it is spelling errors or just getting the material wrong,” Liu said. “Digital notes are much easier to edit, fix, and search through. Not to mention that typing out notes is fast. I can’t imagine writing out notes during my three hour lectures. Additionally, digital notes are more interactive, which is more important now more than ever. Because we are unable to collaborate in-person anymore, sharing a Google Doc with my classmates is an alternative to sharing notes.”

As with any mode of learning, there are different variables to consider when it comes to choosing what works best for you. If you prefer typing your notes, try to understand and process the material first instead of simply transcribing what the professor says word for word. Jasmine Coulombe, U3 Science, offered advice for typing notes.

“I always wait until the professor finishes a slide or a problem,” Coulombe said. “Afterwards, I type out the main concepts that were just explained in my own words. That way, I’m able to actively listen and understand the material being taught, and not just create a record of the lecture. If there’s something that I missed, I’ll wait until I finish listening to the whole lecture and watch the recording afterwards so I don’t disrupt my flow.”

Ultimately, typing notes and writing them out can both be effective note-taking methods, though handwritten notes are often more conducive to retaining information.

 

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