Should You Type or Write Your Notes? All You Need to Know

When it comes to taking notes, students often question whether they should write their notes by hands or type them up on a device.

However, writing notes by hand is the far superior method because it allows you to be more flexible and adaptive to the content. Because you write slower than you type, you will most likely have to listen carefully and selectively choose words to write down rather than write down every word when typing; this will help your retention overall.

On the contrary typing notes on a device allows you to get lots of content down fast but perhaps your understanding and retention will not be as much as if you had written your notes up. Typing your notes will most likely lead to copying notes verbatim (word for word).

Taking notes by hand or on a device continues to be a debate-able topic amongst students but there is a lot to be found about taking notes you should first know about…

Why should I bother taking notes? What’s the point?

A lot of students claim that they don’t really need to take notes when they are listening to a lecture, watching a video or reading a textbook. But if you check out my article on ‘how to study’ then you will see that by not taking notes, you are studying ‘passively’.

Let’s say you were listening to a lecture from your professor and your professor provided notes for the lecture before hand. You have to two choices, to either make your own notes as the professor speaks or just listen.

If you are going to just listen, you simply allow the information to pass through your ears. Realistically, you aren’t actually memorising or understanding the majority of the information.

Taking notes will ensure that you engage with the information and sometimes you have to take notes because your teacher/professor won’t give you any in the first place! If you don’t take any notes, you don’t have any material to check or review your information when it comes to revision.

Always remember this, no matter how good or bad your notes, the most important thing is what’s inside your brain. It doesn’t matter if you have the best notes in the world, if you can’t retain that in your brain then your notes are no good.

This is all assuming that you have to give a test/exam without any available resources to help you. I’ve never come across doing an ‘open-book’ exam.

Making notes from different sources

Depending on how you are presented with information, you may choose to take notes digitally or by hand.

For example, if you are taking notes from a textbook or some other text-based source of notes, then it’s  more favorable to take notes by hand. This is because you aren’t under pressure of missing out what the professor has to say- you can take your time making notes.

If you are taking notes from a verbal source, then you may consider typing up your notes and then later condensing them into smaller, more digestible, hand-written notes (more on this later).

Notes for different subjects

Depending on what subject you are studying for, you might prefer to take hand-written notes. For example, taking notes from a maths lecture on a laptop is quite a big no-no.

Whenever you are required to use symbols or mathematical formulae then hand-written notes are the way to go. Like perhaps in physics or chemistry. But what about using diagrams?

On a laptop, it’s easy to simply copy and past images into your work but it’s difficult to label the diagrams (unless you are experienced with using formatting). Making a quick, sketched, diagram is quite effective by hand and you don’t really have to be an artist.

I remember my high school Chemistry classes where we focused on organic chemistry. Now organic Chemistry involves drawing a lot chemical structures and mechanisms, so you need to add ‘curly arrows’ all around your page. I don’t see how one could use a laptop for this; you need to practice drawing this with your hand.

When I was in middle school, I remember a teacher once disallowed a student from using a computer to write up his homework because he claimed that ‘your exams will be written, not on a computer’. To this day, this remains true for many of us.

Hand-written notes: the advantages

Hand-writing your notes comes with many benefits, as mentioned above, it allows you to ‘be more free’ when it comes to taking notes. However, with a word document, you have to follow to the set ‘line-by-line’ typing and formatting can be quite a challenge sometimes.

Although, the main advantage of taking handwritten notes is that you are more likely to remember the information you wrote down. Why is this?

When you are taking notes by hand, you can’t write down every single word that is given to you (by your teacher/professor via a lecture or powerpoint). That’s why you have to actively choose and filter information that is presented to you. When you are thinking about the information, guess what? You’re more likely to remember it aren’t you?

There have been several studies done, similar to this one, that show that taking notes by pen is far more superior than taking notes on a laptop. These researches have proven that students who take notes by hand can perform better on tests as compared to students who take notes digitally.

Time and time again, it all comes down this single reason: students who use laptops are more likely to make notes verbatim (word for word).

Of course this is highly dependent on the quality of notes you take, you could make hand-written notes that would be no different from a laptop/device.

How to make notes by hand

There are lots of different ways students use to take notes, the most common and probably the most useless way is to take linear, verbatim notes. This is basically when you literally just write out every single word the textbook or the teacher says.

Here is the golden rule for note-taking: Don’t write everything down. Only write the useful keywords so you can come back and recall information on this.

We’ve already said that digital note-takers fail because they write down every word called out to them but if you take notes by hand and literally just copy a textbook or create a transcript of a lecture- you aren’t gaining much.

Good notes aren’t the ones that have large chunks and chunks of writing, good notes are the ones that students can relate to easily.

Here are some great ways to take notes:

  • Cornell note taking method- This involves splitting your page into three sections (the left margin, bottom margin and a large open space on the right side). The idea here is to take notes- however you want- in the right hand space while writing only keywords in the left hand margin. To effectively use Cornell notes, you have to go home and review your notes so you use the left hand column (with keywords) to create a summary in the bottom margin without checking your notes.
  • Mind mapping- Creating mind maps is another great way to make notes. Mind maps are great because they allow you structure information very easily and actually makes good use of image and colour. If you want a guide to creating mind maps, then check this here.

Now mind maps can be made digitally and it’s something you might want to consider after you’ve actually created a few mind maps on paper yourself. Trust me, nothing beats the pen and paper when it comes to getting creative with mind maps.

When is taking notes on a laptop a big no?

Look, if you’re going to get distracted during your lecture and start watching YouTube on your laptop then obviously you’ve got to stop. Alright, you might not have gone on YouTube, but the distractions of checking emails, doing other homework or visiting social media is just a click away.

It’s understandable to use a laptop if your teacher or professor has asked to used specific piece of software. But if you find yourself getting really distracted on a laptop, you should try FocusMe or some other application/website blocker.

This will ensure that you remain on websites and applications that you are meant you- it completely ends the ability to get distracted!

When is using a laptop for notes ever viable?

So we’ve basically said that taking notes digitally isn’t the way to go but isn’t there some kind of scenario where it might work out?

There are definitely tons of students out there, who take notes on laptops and are very successful in their learning. Taking notes digitally can work for you, remember your learning and understanding doesn’t have to come immediately from the lecture- in fact you should go home and review your notes.

If you just can’t seem to keep writing as fast as your professor speaks, then digital notes may be the way to go for you. Once you’ve got your notes digitally, it’s time to make sure you understand and memorise them…how can we do this?

Making notes of notes?

If you do take notes digitally, they are most likely going to be ‘chunky’ and not very brief. This is understandable because you just tried to take as much information down as you possibly could. However, if you ever need to review and check your notes, you’re going to need something much more condensed and refined.

That’s where making notes of your initial notes comes in. The strategy here is to take as much information down as you can in lectures/class and then refine them into very useful notes later on in the day.

This is also an excellent study tool because you are actually using an effective study techniques called ‘Spaced repetition’. You see, when you initially attended that class/lecture, you gained some knowledge on a topic.

Upon coming home later that same evening, you may find that you have forgotten a lot of what you learned in that class. If you don’t review the information, by tomorrow, you could have forgotten almost all the information you learned in that one class. It’s all to do with the ‘forgetting curve’.

So the idea here is to take notes initially (they will be large and hard to get through) when you are in class and then go home later that day and make improved notes.

One step ahead of this is obviously to take very good notes during your class so that you don’t have to come home and remake them.

The bottomline is that hand-written notes are superior in terms of content retention and understanding. But digital notes can seem more practical. You could always use a combination of both but remember that, at the end of the day, you’ve got to get that information into your brain.




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