Take Notes By Hand

Every time I hop on a video call or sit down in person to meet with someone, they’re always surprised when I pop out pen and paper to take notes. In this day in age, and being the technologically savvy person that I am, I’m always asked why.

Writing helps ingrain information into our memory for better retention, but can also help with deeper comprehension. The scientific advantages are well documented. In one study, while those taking notes on a laptop did equally well with recalling facts, those that took notes with paper performed significantly better with conceptual questions. People mindlessly taking notes verbatim did not fare as well as those just trying to jot down ideas and the overall message.

Again, in another study subjects taking notes on laptops actually recalled more than hand-writers immediately after class, but they typically forgot everything just after 24 hours, and they found their notes less useful, as they tried to transcribe everything. Those that wrote their notes by hand recalled information even a week later and had a “better grip on concepts.”

Some physicians even recommend handwriting as a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers to stay sharp as they get older. As Michael Friedman, a researcher for the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, put it, “Note-taking is a pretty dynamic process…you are transforming what you hear in your mind.” Neurophysiologists have discovered that there is increased retention through the process of muscle memory. When writing, as we use the muscles in our hands to form each letter our brain receives feedback from our motor actions and gives us a sort of haptic feedback. Suffice it to say, this dramatically improves the learning process.

But many of us have meetings almost every day. Who needs those stacks of paper that add up and clutter your workspace? I deal with this by handwriting most of my important notes first, and then using OCR software to transfer it a Google doc or a text file to store it for long-term keeping. I usually review them one more time before converting them to digital notes, but once that’s done I can dispose of the written notes and save myself the clutter.

Don’t believe me? Try it! Next time you have a meeting, take notes by hand and try to limit your computer use. You’ll be much more engaged, think creatively, and recall what you spoke about long after the meeting.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Mark July 6, 2016, 9:35 pm

    Great words and spot on!

    Been an old school note taker for years. Always works.

  • Aaron Strong July 6, 2016, 9:42 pm

    Great points Morgan…..but, taking notes by hand is so sloooooowwwwww. 🙂 ….How about hand writing the notes after the meeting, for retention purposes?… Just mentioning this because many people can type notes at a higher pace than notes by hand and that is a huge factor in a meeting or learning situation.

  • Edward Zeiden July 6, 2016, 9:50 pm

    Great point, Aaron. Some of the studies I cited from UCLA and Princeton compared students who watched TED talks while taking notes by hand or computer. They had some interesting results.

    “Afterward, they found that the students who used laptops typed significantly more words than those who took notes by hand. When testing how well the students remembered information, the researchers found a key point of divergence in the type of question. For questions that asked students to simply remember facts, like dates, both groups did equally well. But for “conceptual-application” questions, such as, “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?” the laptop users did “significantly worse.”” http://www.npr.org/2016/04/17/474525392/attention-students-put-your-laptops-away

    If a meeting or event is extremely important, I would recommend taking a video or assign a member of your team to specifically only take notes, freeing you up to solely concentrate on what matters most.

  • Krishna July 7, 2016, 10:34 am

    Good point Morgan. Even for reading, I prefer physical books to e-books.

    • Morgan July 10, 2016, 6:49 pm

      Thanks for the comments everyone and just a quick note this was written by one of my amazing writers – Edward Zeiden. I myself actually stopped taking notes by hand years ago, I’m a big Evernote user myself. Still plenty of notes, but all digital now 🙂

  • Clint Huckleberry July 31, 2016, 8:52 am

    If the source of the advantage for longhand notes derives from the conceptual processes they evoke, perhaps instructing laptop users to draft summative rather than verbatim notes will boost performance. Mueller and Oppenheimer explored this idea by warning laptop note takers against the tendency to transcribe information without thinking, and explicitly instructed them to think about the information and type notes in their own words. Despite these instructions, students using laptops showed the same level of verbatim content and were no better in synthesizing material than students who received no such warning. It is possible these direct instructions to improve the quality of laptop notes failed because it is so easy to rely on less demanding, mindless processes when typing.


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