I know it has become more and more common to do everything on our digital devices these days, whether that be our laptop, tablet or smartphone. And that can be great. In many ways, these devices have made us more productive and offer some great tools.

There is one area however, where I will encourage you to go “old school” with a pen (or pencil) and paper. That is when you are TAKING NOTES, particularly for retention and recall.

In my classes I see more and more people taking notes on their laptops or tablets. Don’t get me wrong, I take notes on my devices from time to time as well, usually with Evernote, but when possible I prefer a good ole pen and pad of paper.

I have always felt that I retained more information when I wrote things down on paper. That has always been my preference, but I never knew if it was actually anymore effective than using my computer.

Well it seems that Pam A. Mueller from Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer from UCLA did the work for me and researched this very topic! They wanted to know if laptop note taking was detrimental to someone’s overall understanding and retention of new information.

The findings?

Stick with the pen and paper!

Their research showed that when you use a laptop to take notes, you are much more likely to become more like a transcriptionist, mindlessly transcribing and typing what you hear.

In three separate variations of their study, the findings were consistent. While those using laptops were found to take MORE NOTES, those using the long lost art of handwriting scored significantly higher on conceptually based questions.

Now you may be thinking what I was at first. Maybe the use of pen and paper helps your brain in the moment to recall more information than typing on a keyboard. But if we are able to compile more notes on a laptop, maybe there would be an advantage later down the line as a result of having more notes?

Say for instance, that the test was a week later and the students were able to study their notes before the test. In that situation perhaps the advantage would sway to Johnny Laptop? After all, he would have more notes to study.

Not so fast….

Mueller and Oppenheimer used that vary scenario in their third study. In this study, participants were given either a pen or laptop and told to take notes on a lecture. They were then instructed to return the following week to be tested on the material. Once again, even though the laptop participants recorded more notes, those using pens performed better on conceptual and this time factual questions.

What can we learn from this?

The pen is not obsolete – Even with all of our technology, sometimes the best solutions are low-tech. I love technology as much as the next guy, but if you are looking for optimal performance, it is more important to choose the right tool for the job.

Don’t just mindlessly take notes – If your note taking is for a grocery list and your list is of no value to you once those groceries are in your cart, then your smartphone may work just fine. When you are taking notes for the purpose of retention and learning, it is critical not to just mindlessly transcribe what you are hearing. Take notes in your own words and translate what you are hearing into examples that you understand. Summarize concepts into core components instead of just transcribing information as it is presented in front of you.

Next time, if your ultimate goal is mastery, understanding, retention or skill acquisition, grab a pen and paper!

Do you still use a pen and paper for most of your note taking, or have you switched over to digital devices?

Your partner in success,

Josh Paulsen


Thank you to the Harvard Business Review and Maggy McGloin who’s article was the inspiration for this post.