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On Note Taking

One trend that has been bothering me in the education world lately is the number articles that say we should make all students take handwritten notes. I don't doubt that there are retention advantages to taking handwritten notes. But is that the most important function of note taking? Retention? I thought we were beyond the era where memorization of facts is the primary focus of learning.

The handwritten notes argument is also missing the fact that the functionality provided by note taking on a laptop/tablet is very, very different than handwritten notes. Notes taken on a laptop/tablet can be:

  • Formatted with bold, italics, highlights, different fonts, etc.
  • Reformatted as many times as the student wants
  • Copied and pasted to other documents, web searches, etc.
  • Reordered on the fly as needed
  • Searched

The argument has also been made that it is important that note taking not just be a verbatim copy of what was said. Instead, note taking should involve "the synthesis, the re-framing, and the understanding of the information." I agree 100% percent.

Where I disagree with the article is in the assumption that those skills can only be practiced when taking notes by hand. Those same skills can be practiced while taking notes on a laptop/table. If students taking notes on a laptop/tablet are not demonstrating those skills, it is up to us as educators to help students develop those good note taking skills.

Finally, any mention of laptops/tablets would be incomplete without a mention of all of the distractions they offer. I don't think anybody would argue that point. The question is how do we deal with those distractions? Do we just put the laptops/tablets away? Or do we help students develop the time management skills and self-control needed to use a laptop/tablet as a productive tool? I have news, the distractions are not going away and as the students get older, they are only going to increase. It's better that we help students develop good laptop/tablet usage habits earlier than later.

In the end, the goal is that students learn how to take good notes. If they are more comfortable doing so by hand, that's great. But if they are working towards good note taking skills on a laptop/tablet with all of the added functionality it offers, why would we deny that to our students?