Note-taking in class and meetings with laptops and tablets

A recent article in the NY Times cautions against the use of laptops and tablets for note-taking in class or during a meeting. The article is not a Luddite rant and makes points that deserve consideration1. I come to a different conclusion, however, on the potential of laptops/tablets for note-taking in the classroom.

The article argues (and I agree) that laptops and tablets tend to make one a stenographer rather than a discerning note-taker. In contrast, using pen and paper requires one to pick out key points and record them in one’s own words. Handwriting every uttered word is an uninviting proposition2. We pick and choose what to jot down and find succinct ways to record valuable information. Typing, on the other hand, makes transcribing easy and fast3 — no need to filter.

I also think that reviewing handwritten notes might be more challenging and fun! It forces one to recreate the gaps that went unrecorded. The extra effort pays dividends in learning.

Does this mean, as the article suggests, that laptops and tablets have no place in note-taking in the classroom? I don’t think so.

It would be interesting to know whether using a tablet with an e-pencil/pen/stylus is as effective as pen and paper. Assuming the implement provides a smooth and natural writing experience4, the pitfalls of the classical keyboard-based user interface could be avoided. Writing on a screen makes electronic note-taking more natural and direct. One can sketch images — pictures speak a thousand words. Overall, a touch screen interface with pen/pencil input may very well couple more deeply and effectively with cognitive processing than keyboard-based note-taking. This is conjecture based on personal anecdotes and observation. If one knows well-controlled studies that have tested the notions described here, please pass them along.

The NYT article goes into other aspects of using laptops and tablets for note taking. It’s an interesting and quick read.

  1. References to 2 or 3 scientific publications are provided. ↩︎
  2. perhaps this is what makes laptops and tablets an appealing option! ↩︎
  3. Assuming you’re not thumb-pecking on a software keyboard on a mobile device. ↩︎
  4. Apple Pencil works remarkably well, with no lag, and iOS apps, like GoodNotes, are quite good. ↩︎