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Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

February 12, 2019

In the midst of a 60-minute lecture, it can be a struggle to keep up with the professor’s quick pace or monotone voice. Most students opt for good old-fashioned hand-written notes, however, with the advent of laptop computers and tablets, digital note-taking is gaining popularity.

On average, according to a Ratatype infographic, college students can type around 41 words per minute (wpm), depending on their gender, language and skill level. Females, for instance, are on average slower typers than males. Comparatively, for an adult aged 18 and older, the average writing speed is only 13 wpm.

Peirre Conwell, a communications studies major, prefers using a computer to type his notes. Speed is his main priority. “It’s just faster, and I’m already on my computer so I can reference it and I can look things up. It’s easier for me to type and watch as they [his professors] are speaking than it is to look down and write.”

The ease and speed of digital note-taking seems obvious, but while digital note-taking has it’s learning benefits it also has its downsides. “I prefer to take handwritten notes,” Monica Marsh, a political science and journalism double major, said. “I think that taking handwritten notes helps me to retain information a lot better, whereas on a computer IknowI’m not paying attention.”

“There are more distractions if the student is looking for other links as the professor is talking,” Daniel Rivera, academic advisor for exploratory students and tutoring services supervisor, says. “It’s easy to get sidetracked when, ideally, you should be focusing on the moment and not other tangents. In written notes, you could write ‘look up this later’, ‘follow up with this later’,versus doing it at the moment. For some people, it might work, but the majority of students, I would encourage them to write things down.”

Rivera said to have suffered from similar poor note-taking habits during his time as a student. “I was an undergrad, and I was taking notes in class and I’d get tired. My hand would get fatigued. I had to learn that be successful as a student, you really have to figure out that it’s not about being smarter, it’s about being efficient.”  

“These skills really came in handy when I started utilizing shorthand,” Rivera continued. “That’s when I started becoming successful as a student.”

As a journalism student, Marsh agrees. “For my note-taking,” Marsh said. “I just have a good system where I can make everything into shorthand so I don’t have a problem keeping up for the most part.”

“It’s just like texting,” Rivera said of shorthand. “For example, when I was an undergrad, ‘the’ was always a ‘t’ and a slash, ‘with’ was ‘w’ and a slash. Anything ending in ‘ing’, I put a big period.” Consistency, Rivera asserted, is key when it comes to developing a shorthand. “Ultimately, it’s going to save time, and that’s the key, to save time in class.”

Shorthand isn’t the only tactic students use to keep up with rapid-talking teachers or long-winded lectures.

Honor’s student and English education major, Greg Peterson found a compromise that he finds to be ideal for this tech-driven society. “I actually take notes on my computer, but it’s still hand-written. I have basically a tablet-and-computer in one, so it’s kind of a little bit of both.”

Through Office 365, provided by the school, Peterson uses an app called OneNote.

“The best part about this – and why I actually switched over to doing paperless – is all the different things I can do now with it. In class, it’s really nice that it’s just a quick search to find my notes and I can zoom in and mess with it as much as I want after the fact. I don’t need to spend time flipping through pages of notes anymore. I can take and implant photos. I can download documents from my professor and download the PDF directly to the page. When I’m on the internet, there’s a snip-it tool,” Peterson explained.

“I can take whatever part of the webpage I want and copy it directly onto the document. I can pick from many different colors, there’s pens, there’s highlighters, there’s a pencil look. If I wanted to search something real quick,” Peterson continued. “I can have it implanted with a hyperlink in my notes, so I can bring outside sources as well. That’s all something you can’t really do with normal notes. I’mstilltrying to find more tips on how to use it.”

Peterson finds he’s now a lot quicker at note-taking, although he admits there can be a bit of a lag. “It’s a lot of memory to work with, a lot of data I’m putting into my OneDrive. So eventually, I’m sure it’s going to get close to full capacity and I’m going to have to pay for my own, but to me, it’s worth it, a few bucks just to pay for more data and better organization.”

“As an education major,” Peterson continued. “I want to save my notes so I can just reference back for my lesson planning. I have this huge stack of paper that I don’t know how I’m going to sift through when it’s all said and done, I don’t want to accumulate more, so I figured this would be a nice way to organize everything.”

“I’m trying to be more conscientious of what I’m throwing away and what I’m using as far as resources on this Earth, so I’m just trying to get away from paper.  I feel like our world is evolving into the digital world more every day. If other students are looking for a paperless option, this is probably the best way to go,”

Peterson feels that his note-taking strategy led to his admittance to the Honors program. “Note-taking really was the basis of that. I knew that my notes weren’t efficient enough, and I needed to find a way that I could get away from paper so it wasn’t all just this cluttered mess. I did try typing out my notes, and it was very short-lived. Even though it was neat, I didn’t find that I learned as much that way or retained information as well. Even though it’s on a computer, I firmly believe that when you’re handwriting it and changing the wording a bit into your own words, you’re making it go through your mind in a bunch of different ways to help you remember. If you’re just typing it out word-for-word, you’re not going to learn that way,” Peterson concluded.

Mindless note-taking is a concern of many note-takers, where they copy down their professor’s lecture verbatim without processing any of the information.

“As I type sometimes, putting down the notes, I’m thinking more about the letters and individual words as opposed to the actual concepts and ideas,” Rivera said of his own experience with mindless note-taking. “You want to be absorbed in the concept and the idea, because that’s ultimately what you’re trying to figure out; not the individual words involved in it. I would say that mindfulness will be more involved when you’re actually writing it out. There’s also that tactile of holding a pencil and writing something down, is a little bit more engaging than typing it into a computer.”

“There’s a certain muscle memory associated with the writing technique and when you’re doing it, there’s more thought process involved. When you’re putting it in your own words, you can adapt it accordingly, so I think it helps with retention,” Rivera explained.

Rivera posed a metaphor, comparing note-taking with mathematics. “When it’s more digitally presented, or if students have to do math problems online, we find it’s harder for them to interpret the information and really develop the necessary skills to be successful in math. When you’re being examined or evaluated, oftentimes you’re writing it; not typing it out or using a digital format. Anything that’s going to associate with the actual task involved is going to help with retention of that information.”

“One of the biggest challenges is that students aren’t really taught to study in high school, throughout their schooling experience,” Rivera revealed. “My idea is that if we teach them skills like ‘how to memorize things a little differently’, or ‘how to create action around concepts and ideas’, or show them how to put it a playful, silly manner, it’s much easier to recall the information. Students will be better able to actively listen and actively apply these thoughts and processes. I know, as an undergrad, I did all those things and they really paid off.”

Summarized, Rivera truly believes students should try and handwrite their notes, whether it be on paper or on a two-in-one computer such as Peterson’s. “I think handwritten notes helps with memorization. It’s your own technique, it’s your own flow, and you can use whatever format you want. I think writing things out makes it so you’re more engaged, you’re less likely to want to look at other resources while you’re doing that, because you’re engaged in the process.”

For more tips on how to be a more successful student, visit the Academic Success Center in the basement of Chalmer Davee Library or one of the numerous tutoring services on campus.