Note-taking is another entry in that seemingly endless list of activities that have been transformed by the digital age.
Today we can take notes using tablet and stylus; we can lug laptops to meetings; we can snap pictures of slides and whiteboards; we can even employ Siri to take down our notes for us.
But despite these new conveniences, many argue that note-taking by hand has certain benefits that we lose when we shift to digital. Numerous research studies, for example, have found that writing by hand increases the amount of material remembered and also facilitates a deeper understanding of it.
So what should you do, then? Write by hand or take notes digitally?
I humbly submit a third option: both!
First, I start with taking notes by hand because I’ve found that the cognitive benefits are indeed undeniable. But why is this the case?
Since we can type faster than we can write by hand, we naturally capture more information by utilizing a laptop instead of longhand.* Though this may seem like an advantage for digital note-taking, being forced to choose what to write down gives you an extra layer of processing of the information that improves long-term retention.
This is referred to in the literature as generative note-taking, which consists of “summarizing, paraphrasing, (and) concept mapping” as opposed to word-by-word transcription.
Personally, I like to take notes by hand in a notebook and my scrawls will typically flow all over the page in unexpected directions as I do things like connect related ideas with arrows and other symbols. The basic process is the same whether I’m trying to keep up with a professor or presenter or transcribing an idea that finds its way into my head.
I haven’t found any sort of app or software that matches the way I take notes, and I’m skeptical it’s even possible to replicate the activity digitally. I also find that trying to take notes on a laptop or other device usually leads to opened browser tabs and distraction.
But what happens farther down the road?
If you’re taking a class you’ll probably throw your notebook away after the semester or tuck it away in a drawer. Will those retention benefits mean much if the notes themselves are lost or in the trash bin?
Here it’s important to consider why it is that note-taking is beneficial in the first place.
The idea we’ve explored so far of extra processing leading to deeper learning makes up a theory called the encoding hypothesis. Another line of thinking is the external-storage hypothesis, which states that learning happens by being able to refer back to your notes later.
And it’s with this long-term retrieval and re-reading of notes where the digital route has the advantage. With the right software you can search a whole library of notes by full-text, organize it into notebooks and tags, and access your notes from all devices.
So with my approach, the words in my notebook are not where the process ends.
Later on, I take my notebook, type up my more important notes in Evernote, and add some metadata. The searching capabilities, even from mobile, are excellent. In two seconds I can pull up my notes from a class I took six years ago or recall an interesting passage from a book I’ve completely forgotten.
I often find that the biggest benefit comes from the act of transcription itself. I notice myself committing the ideas in those notes much more deeply to memory, and given the research presented earlier, it’s not hard to see why. If handwriting originally gave me an extra level of processing, typing up those scrawls into an intelligible document provides an even stronger one.
Then later, if I’m sitting around killing a few minutes on my phone, I’ll try to resist the pull of Facebook and instead review something interesting I took notes on earlier.
Overall, by combining handwriting and digital note-taking, I get the cognitive benefits as well as the added convenience of easily accessing a note later. Seems like a win-win to me.
*It’s worth noting that the idea of handwriting vs. digital note-taking has become a false dichotomy, as the proliferation of styluses for devices allow you to stay digital but still use longhand.
image credit: marcoarment