By Tamara Rosier, PhD, Research Committee Chair.
Let’s face it. We love our technology. And for those of us with ADHD, technology helps us greatly from homework apps, to alarms that remind us when to leave for our next appointment. With technology, we have a cornucopia of information, facts, and resources before us. There are times, however, we analyze our use of technology and re-discover ways of doing things that are more congruent with our brains. Research from the past few years has caused us to rethink how we capture ideas and thoughts. Though this research has to do with college students taking notes, it has application to our clients and their memories.
Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) conducted their first study with 65 college students who watched short lectures in a small group. They were told to take notes using which ever they preferred and what ever they normally used to take notes – paper and pen (longhand) or laptop (disconnected from internet). After the lecture, students were given several distractor-type of activities designed to tax their working memory. After thirty minutes, they were tested on factual recall and conceptual-application questions based on the lecture.
Results revealed that the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts (laptop: M = 0.021, SD = 1.31; long- hand: M = 0.009, SD = 1.02). On conceptual-application questions, however, laptop participants performed significantly worse, (M = −0.156, SD = 0.915) than longhand participants (M = 0.154, SD = 1.08), F(1, 55) = 9.99, p = .03, ηp2 = .13). Performance on conceptual-application questions was affected depending which lecture participants experienced F(4, 55) = 12.52, p = .02, ηp2 = .16); but, there was no significant interaction between lecture and note-taking medium, F(4, 55) = 0.164, p = .96.
When researchers analyzed the content of the notes, there were several qualitative differences between laptop and longhand notes. The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim phrases from the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand. Participants who took longhand notes wrote significantly fewer words (M = 173.4, SD = 70.7) than those who typed (M = 309.6, SD = 116.5), t(48.58) = −5.63, p < .001, d = 1.4, corrected for unequal variances.
Overall, students who took more notes performed better, (but so did those who had less verbatim overlap), suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.” In a subsequent study (reported in the same article), the researchers also found that longhand note takers still beat laptop note takers on recall one week later when participants were given a chance to review their notes before taking the recall test. Once again, the amount of verbatim overlap was associated with worse performance on conceptual items.
What This Can Mean
It may be that longhand note takers engage in more cognitive processing than laptop note takers. This type of engaged processing may cause individuals to select more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to remember, work with and study content more efficiently. Or it may be because the individuals encoded the information differently when taking notes long-hand. Either way this has implications for our coaching.
This study was conducted on the “average” college student, presumably those without short-term memory issues. If taking notes longhand benefitted this population then taking notes longhand has the potential to be very beneficial for those with short-term memory issues like many of our clients. Short-term memory acts as a kind of “scratch-pad” for temporary recall of the information that is being processed at any point in time. Short-term memory is like our brain’s Post-it note. It is the ability to remember and process information at the same time. It holds a small amount of information (typically around 7 items or even less) in mind in an active, readily available state for a short period of time (typically from 10 to 15 seconds, or sometimes up to a minute). Taking notes by hand may provide a way of creating a facsimile of short-term or working memory space.
When we teach our clients to taking notes by hand when they want to learn something, we are helping them develop a space on paper to assimilate or accommodate their ideas. We are teaching them to think on paper, instead of capturing another person’s words verbatim. By undertaking the bottleneck of short-term memory, we may be helping them think more deeply in the short-term and then the working memory space for a greater period of time.
Some of us have never veered much from handwriting our notes because it just felt right. We may have told our clients to handwrite their lists, notes, and other things because we somehow knew that it would be helpful. This study and others like it have the potential to help us examine our practices and to better guide our clients’ in their use of the technologies they have before them.
Mueller, P., & Oppenheimer, D., (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25: 1159-1168.
Tamara Rosier, PhD, serves as chair of the Research Committee.
Tamara has been an administrator, professor, leadership consultant, public speaker, and high school teacher. Now she is a passionate Leadership and ADHD Coach who helps her clients develop more confidence, smoother communication, closer relationships, and increased success. Contact her at the ACO at firstname.lastname@example.org, or privately at 616-648-1969 and email@example.com.