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Curious Minds - Laptop Note Takers: Your Keyboard May Impair Learning

Laptop Note Takers: Your Keyboard May Impair Learning


Tal Gross, an assistant professor Columbia University, is banning laptops from his classroom, convinced that doing so will help his students get more out of class.

Gross isn’t talking about those students who sit in the back row using their laptops to check Facebook, scroll through a Twitter feed, or read email. As he points out in an article he wrote for the Washington Post, most teachers in higher education just ignore such behavior. “After all, these students are adults, and they have to take a final exam. Do I have to be the disciplinarian?” 

Gross worries about those students who are paying attention—specifically, those who are using their laptops to take copious notes. The problem: because his students are fast, accurate typists, their notes tend to include just about everything said in class. The students, he writes “shift from being intellectuals, listening to one another, to being customer-service representatives, taking down orders. Class is supposed to be a conversation, not an exercise in dictation.”

In their rush to record Gross’s lecture, the students are neglecting to do something far more important: really listening to and thinking about what he’s saying and then jotting down his truly key and most relevant points. 

As Gross points out, a study by Pam Mueller at Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer at the University of California, Los Angeles supports his position. The study compared the test results of students who watched video lectures while taking notes on their laptops with those who watched the same lectures while taking notes with paper and pen. In most cases, there were no differences when students were asked factual questions about the lectures; however, those who took notes with paper and pen scored higher on conceptual questions. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s conclusion: “that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”


I totally get it. When conducting interviews, I take notes in one of two ways: at the computer, or writing with a pen in a reporter’s notebook. And sometimes when I look back at my typed-up notes, I realize that in my zeal to capture a source’s exact words I failed to detect where the interview was going and neglected to ask an important follow-up question.

At a time when more and more schools are handing every student a tablet, it might in fact be wise to figure out when the pen might be mightier than a keyboard.


Priscilla Pardini is WCATY’s communications coordinator and editor of Curious Minds.