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How Typing Is Destroying Your Memory

Studies show that you're more likely to remember things that you write down, but there are circumstances where you should grab your laptop.

How Typing Is Destroying Your Memory
[Photo: Flickr user User:Colin]

Bad News: If you take notes in a meeting using your laptop, or if you create a to-do list using an app, you might be undermining your ability to recall the information later.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that the pen is mightier than the keyboard when it comes to remembering what you just jotted down.

Princeton University psychological scientist Pam Mueller, lead author of the study, noticed the difference while she was a graduate teaching assistant. She normally brought her laptop to the lecture to take notes, but one day she didn’t have it. "I felt like I learned a lot more," she recalls.

Using three different studies, Mueller tested the affect of note-taking techniques on memory. First she had two groups of students take notes on a TED talk, with half of the group using a laptop and the other half using a pen and notebook. Each group was tested on the material, and while both groups tested well on questions that involved recalling facts, the longhand group scored significantly better on conceptual questions.

"Students who took notes on the laptop were basically transcribing the lecture," says Mueller. "Because we write by hand less quickly, those who took notes with pen and paper had to be more selective, choosing the most important information to include in their notes. This enabled them to study the content more efficiently."

In the second study, Mueller told the laptop note-taking group to try not to take verbatim notes; however, students were unable to do that. "It’s an ingrained technique," says Mueller.

In the final study, Mueller allowed each group to study their notes, testing them on the material a week later. She expected the laptop note-takers’ scores to bounce back, but it wasn’t the case: "We were surprised that the longhand students still did better," she says. "Even though laptop note-takers had more content written down, they hadn’t processed it in the same way initially."

Which Method Is Best?

"People should be more aware of how they are choosing to take notes, both in terms of the medium and the strategy," says Mueller. "There are times when taking notes by hand can be much more beneficial, and there are times when your laptop is the right choice."

When you’re in a situation where it’s important to form a deeper understanding of the material, such as during a conference or workshop, taking longhand notes will allow you greater processing while you’re listening. When you’re writing, you’re thinking more, says Mueller, and you might have more insight about what is most important at the time.

Another situation where longhand notes might be helpful is in creating a to-do list. Mueller says you might be better able to decide what’s important versus listing anything that comes to mind on an electronic device.

Any time you need a verbatim record, bring the laptop, suggests Mueller. If you will be getting detailed instructions from the boss, for example, it’s helpful to transcribe the conversation. Other situations where a laptop might be best include taking notes to generate a project bid or interviewing a source who will be quoted.

Mueller doesn’t anticipate that most of us will switch back to pencil and paper, but she says new stylus technologies might provide a happy medium.

"Those may be the way to go to have an electronic record of one’s notes, while also having the benefit of being forced to process information as it comes in, rather than mindlessly transcribing it," she says.

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