Is the pen really mightier than the keyboard?

        It’s Tuesday, August 14 – the first day of school. You stumble into your first class at 8:34, AP Zoology, or something like that, and your teacher hands you a pink piece of paper (she thinks that she’s edgy by using colored paper). After reading through the list of necessary class supplies and learning that tests are worth 90% of your final grade, you get to the note taking policies. Notes are to be taken by hand. Your hand is already cramping up. Over audible groans, your teacher explains that taking notes by hand is, “scientifically-proven to help understand and remember the notes better,” and that using your computer during class is “strictly prohibited.” While you realize that this is probably true, it also means that you can’t play in the back of class – a huge bummer, especially if you’re me. So, you begin to ask yourself a question – is it better to take notes by hand or to game all class and procrastinate studying until the last minute? That’s what I asked myself, until I realized that there is a better, real question that I should be asking.

        Is it better to take notes by hand or on a computer? That is assuming that you are not, like myself, easily distracted by .io games. Now, I understand if you are reading this and already preparing a detailed rant about how taking notes by hand is obviously better. If you’re interested, feel free to e-mail it to me (MLA-citations are acceptable). Back when I sat in that first class of the day on August 14th (which is really not that long ago, despite what it feels like), I thought the exact same thing, that taking notes by hand is obviously better. I let myself lean in to the scientific cult that my teachers have been referencing every year since kindergarten and dutifully whipped out my college-ruled paper and shiny new mechanical pencil, fresh from Office Depot (which will inevitably disappear mysteriously in the next week). Until I realized that that’s exactly what they want you to think. Of course, this “they,” the people I oppose with a ferocious tenacity, are teachers. Students, especially students at our fine educational establishment, take teacher’s words verbatim, as the truth, the Bible, the Quran, the Torah, often without thinking about what the words themselves mean. But I chose not be a sheep like everyone else; I question their words.

        All of that led me to my final question of what the best way to take notes is – by hand or on a computer? So, last night I began an in-depth inquiry into the best way to take notes. I began my investigation the way any scholar would, by switching from to Then, I thought about that one “fact” that every teacher brings up on the first day, that taking notes by hand is “scientifically-proven to help understand and remember the notes better.” Is this true? Well, probably, but since no one ever questions this, I thought that I, the self-proclaimed “non-Sheep,” if you will, should be the one to question it. Using my secret weapon, a more pretentious Google browser, I searched “note-taking” and skimmed through the first couple search results. With the grueling, in-depth research completed in the same manner as a freshman boy researching for Mr. Monahan’s Intro to History class, I was able to formulate a thorough and unchallengeable conclusion. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that taking notes by hand is actually better for understanding. 1 point for teachers – 0 for “non-Sheep”.

        So that settles the debate – right? Wrong! As you can see, that is not where the debate ends. I know a lot of you are currently scratching your heads and wondering, “What more do you need to know when you already have the concrete evidence that you asked for?” And I would say, “Thank you for asking a question that perfectly sets up the rest of my article. Now let me explain.”

        I believe that these studies do not use the same conditions for note-taking as high school lectures do. These studies tested when students took notes based off of lectures that were just the professor or presenter speaking with very little to no other stimulus, usually in the form of PowerPoints to go along with the lecture. But high school teachers, at least Westminster teachers, almost always lecture with a PowerPoint that summarizes their main points (I say almost always because you will inevitably have a teacher who doesn’t use a PowerPoint and attempt to refute me – but you can’t because I’m not being definite). And when teachers use a PowerPoint, students just write down what is on the PowerPoint without thinking about the information itself. Students’ ability to summarize information in their own words is the backbone of evidence that suggest that taking notes by hand is better, but if students just copy down the PowerPoint, then they lose all of that deeper understanding that they would have gained.

        Maybe these studies are not as accurate as they are made out to be – at least in a high school classroom. If taking notes by hand is not the solution to taking notes in high school lectures, then is typing the solution? The problem with typing, that many studies have correctly pointed out, is that students don’t focus on the information, but rather type as much as they can in an attempt to get everything the teacher says down. Right now, you are probably asking, “If typing isn’t the best and writing isn’t the best, is there no best way to take notes?” Well (brace yourself for the most heartbreaking response) it depends. Everyone is different and every situation is different. That is why we shouldn’t actually use studies of a few students to make overarching conclusions about every student ever.

        In an attempt to keep this from getting too dry, I am going to use some anecdotes to explain some situations when you might use choose typing over handwriting and vice versa. For example, I cannot take notes on computer because if I do, I will easily get distracted by, so I have to take notes by hand. But on the other hand, my friend, who we will call Chad in an attempt for anonymity, takes better notes by computer. The other day, we were in Bio (actually, Honors Bio, yes, I’m smart like that), and I asked Chad if he could pull out his notes for a lab. He said he couldn’t read his notes, and I didn’t really know what he meant. It turns out Chad’s hand-writing is almost illegible. It’s so bad that he cannot even read half of his words, and I could read even less. This is the kind of thing that you cannot make up. So what’s the point of Chad even taking notes in Bio? Is it to pretend like he’s paying attention? To pretend like he’s learning? Or something else? Whatever the reason, I would have to assume (a bold word in 2018) that it loops back to our Bio teacher who makes Chad take notes by hand. If you are in Chad’s, oddly specific camp of hardly being able to read your own handwriting (as an unfortunate number of adolescent boys are), then maybe you should consider taking notes on a computer. That is, if your teachers will allow it (which many won’t).

        Through the use of actual scientifically-proven evidence along with hand-picked anecdotes, I hope that I have given you a new perspective on note-taking. Note-taking, much like life is not just black and white. Wow, that was deep. If your teacher permits, take time to think about your situation, and make an informed decision on how it is best for you to take notes. And if your teacher makes you take notes by hand, do not just copy down the PowerPoint (they’ll post it to Schoology anyway). Summarize their points in your words, so that you can better understand the information.