Is There a Different Impact on Exam Grades When Notes are Taken by Pen or by Keyboard?

As college students, one thing that seems like a simple task is note taking. The better notes you take; the better grades you get. One thing that struck my curiosity was how different note taking techniques impact a student’s abilities to perform well on exams. As time goes on, I have started to notice more and more students using laptops in order to take notes in a classroom setting. My biggest question is whether or not taking notes on a laptop is as effective as writing notes down in a notebook.


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Researchers at Princeton University set out to answer to that exact question. In the this study, researchers compiled a group of 66 students who were not told the true purpose of the study. During the study, all of the participants were put into a room with either a laptop or a notebook and shown Ted Talks after being instructed to take notes. After the Ted Talks ended, the subjects were taken into a lab and instructed to complete two distracting activates. After a long enough time had passed since the Ted Talk, the subjects were prompted with a mix of factual and conceptual questions. After the students had taken the tests, their scores were determined by “blind” graders in order to make sure there was no bias towards one group.


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The results of that study turned out to be quite interesting. While the average scores on the factual section of the assessments were about the same, the average conceptual scores turned out to be much higher for the subjects who took notes on notebooks. One of the possible mechanisms discussed in the study was that students taking notes on laptops were writing down exactly what was being said in the Ted Talks whereas students who were taking notes on paper were noting key points and concepts. This mechanism would explain why students taking notes on laptops were scoring equally as well on the factual portion but not as well on the conceptual portion of the assessment.

My take away from this study is that students are much better off taking notes with pen and paper rather than with a laptop. The advantage of handwriting notes is that it encourages students to conceptualize what is being said in a more creative fashion, whereas laptop note taking encourages replication on a presenter’s information. Also I have noticed that, not only is using a laptop often distracting to others, it can lead to students getting distracted by the temptation to use social media or browse the internet.

7 thoughts on “Is There a Different Impact on Exam Grades When Notes are Taken by Pen or by Keyboard?

  1. Erin Kelly

    I really liked this article, especially because I always handwrite my notes. This NPR article talks about a lot of the same issues that you (and some other people who commented) brought up:

    I think kids would really benefit from being forced to even attempt hand writing their notes occasionally. This also made me think about the whole idea of technology in schools in general. There are so many online versions of texts, but I always print things so that I can read a hard copy. I wonder if some of the same principles that you introduced would apply in this case too? What about taking a test on the computer versus taking a test with pencil and paper?

    1. Greg Belluscio Post author

      Hey Erin,
      I personally hate taking tests online, especially math exams. I think that students should have the choice to take exams on paper because i do agree that a lot of the issues that arise while taking notes can take place while taking an exam. Any type of notification on the screen breaks my focus while taking an exam and i think that could effect a large number of students in a negative way.

  2. Matthew Edward Simco

    This is an interesting article. I often take notes on my laptop specifically because I am lazy. It is a lot easier and a lot less effort to type something than write something. My mom always told me to hand write notes because you learn in the process of writing, but I always thought this was bs. It is interesting to see, though, that people performed better when writing notes as opposed to typing them. The following website explains four reasons why handwriting notes is better than typing notes.

    1. Greg Belluscio Post author

      Hey Matthew,
      I personally don’t take notes on my laptop in class, but after learning that the big thing laptop users like yourself are missing in class is conceptual information do you think you would be able to adjust your laptop note taking technique in an attempt to absorb some of the larger concepts?

  3. Elsa Breakey

    I like this post. In classes where laptops are permitted, I never use mine. I agree with the study that whenever I do take notes on my laptop, I just copy and don’t even process the information. When I take notes with a pen and paper, I summarize instead of writing word for word and it helps me retain information. I’ve also found that re-writing the information helps me remember it better and I often use this as a study method.

    I think laptops are distracting, especially MacBooks since you can connect your text messages to it and lose your train of thought within a split second.

    1. Greg Belluscio Post author

      Thats very true, I did not even think about the fact that MacBooks now link IMessage to your laptop. This Article gave some pretty draw dropping statistics about how much time is wasted on other activities not related to class, it is definitely worth a read. I am honestly surprised that laptops have not been banned in all classroom setting due to the overwhelming amount of evidence pointing towards how harmful they can be. what do you think?

  4. Lydia A Chelli

    I enjoy taking notes on notebooks because I feel too restricted with a computer. Also, writing instead of typing helps plant the seed in my memory more than pressing the buttons on the keyboard. I also write little notes around ideas and sometimes draw images or diagrams that I think would improve my understanding of a certain topic. It makes me happy to know that this is the more efficient way to take notes!

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