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For Smarter Notes, Ditch the Laptop and Pick Up a Pen

Improved memory retention, anyone?

We’re all guilty of it: We’re in a meeting, a lecture, a classroom setting, whatever, and we’ve got our laptop open and primed to dutifully take copious notes. In reality, we’re scrolling through Facebook or adding toilet paper to our Amazon shopping cart.

When’s the last time you took comprehensive notes in a meeting or class lecture? Wait…did you even take notes in college? Actually, when’s the last time you wrote something down by hand?

If you’re scratching your head right now, so are we. It is so easy to get distracted (yes, the irony is not lost on us) with digital devices, which is exactly why, when it comes to note-taking, your best bet is to silence the keyboard and take *blows off dust* pen to paper.

To dive deeper into the longhand versus typing debate, we chatted with two experts in the field: Kenneth Kiewra, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Daniel Oppenheimer, PhD, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon. The two have thought a lot about how we process information, and they both agree that the pen lends itself to increased memory retention and better exam performance.

So how does one take notes effectively? While there are myriad ways, here are some key practices we think you should definitely employ. It’s time to pick up that pen. And no, it’s not broken, you just need to take the cap off.


Use Your Own Words (Verbatim Isn’t Your Friend)

Both Oppenheimer and Kiewra stress that taking notes via laptop allows you to write verbatim. It’s not surprising, but you can type way faster than you can write. This means that during a lecture, meeting, or interview, you can fall into the trap of recording everything that is being said instead of taking the time to listen and respond. “You’re not being forced to summarize the content in your own words,” Oppenheimer says. Essentially you’re copying and pasting, which means in the long run, you’ll remember less.

Engage and Paraphrase

Taking notes by hand forces you to slow down, think about the content that is being discussed, and engage with it as much as possible. It causes you to physically engage with the words, therefore paraphrasing what’s been said and injecting your own vocab. Note-taking also allows you to organize the page in the way you see fit. “Laptop notetakers aren’t really recording things like graphs, illustrations, and charts, whereas the handwriting note-takers definitely are. They’re making signals in their notes, drawing arrows, underlining things, and so forth,” Kiewra says.

Utilize Keywords, Dates, and Colors (Among Other Things)

A couple of things to keep in mind are keywords, dates, locations, times, colors, and speakers. Kiewra mentioned his use of a red pen for his own thoughts and ideas versus a black pen to capture the lecturer’s points. He also mentioned labeling pages in your notebook correctly with dates, locations, and times. You can bold or underline keywords to highlight their significance and mark down who said what during a conversation if it sparks a question. Later, you’ll be able to follow up with that person if you’re confused about something.

Review and Continue To Revise (Always!) 

One of the most important things Oppenheimer and Kiewra stress is the revision process. “I encourage students to go back to their notes and summarize or rewrite them in their own words,” Oppenheimer says. Adding in examples and personalizing the information is key to memory retention. “You may have to recognize examples of a concept on an exam. You really can’t learn certain concepts with definitions alone, so that’s when examples come into play,” Kiewra says. In short, incorporate your own flair. Things will be easier to recall later on if you’ve added your own touch to otherwise bland textbook definitions.

Compare Notes Whenever Possible

Yes, sharing is caring. “Doing this will allow you to fill in gaps in your understanding, correct errors, and think about different ways of conceptualizing the content,” Oppenheimer says. When it comes to note-taking, two minds are better than one. “People think they have good memories, and that’s usually wrong,” Kiewra adds. “Note-taking is important, but it’s the beginning of the learning process. Certainly not the end.” Open up the conversation, speak to your peers, and continue to discuss the material. You’ll be surprised by how much more you remember.


Every product covered here is independently selected by opinionated humans. But so you know, buying stuff through our links may earn us a small share of the sale or other compensation.

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