An in-depth neuroscience look into why taking notes on paper is better for students.

By Shreya Mantripragada

With the rise of remote and online learning, numerous students now rely on digital devices to take notes and retain information. This, however, is detrimental to the learning process as taking notes on digital devices, unlike the paper-pen style, prevents students from understanding the overall idea of a lecture or instructional video. To test this hypothesis, Mueller Oppenheimer, a graduate student at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, conducted an experiment where he randomly selected college students and asked them to watch a Ted Talk using a note-taking method of their preference. The results revealed that, while the two types of note-takers – paper and laptop – performed equally well on factual questions, the laptop notetakers performed significantly worse on overall conceptual questions.

The Neuroscience Behind the Paper-Pen Style

To further examine the relationship between writing on paper to the activity of certain brain regions, neuroscientists Audrey L. H. van der Meer and F. R. (Ruud) van der Weel at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined a patient’s brain regions when the patient took online notes and compared it to when the patient took notes on paper. Through an Electroencephalogram (EEG), a noninvasive electrophysical monitoring method to record the electrical activity of the brain, van der Meer and van der Weel saw increased brain activity when the patient took notes on paper and a drastic increase in activity in all the examined regions of the brain (shown in the image from left to right): frontal lobe, central region, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe.

With these findings, which aligned with existing literature, neuroscientists van der Meer and van der Weel concluded that higher brain activity in the observed lobes — particularly the temporal, a lobe responsible for learning and retaining information — provides optimal conditions for the brain to learn and understand information for long periods of time. Thus, the study articulates the importance for students to take hand-written notes for an efficient learning experience and why teachers should enforce this note-taking style in their classrooms. 

Although teachers and students are inclined to enforce online note-taking during remote learning, AP United States History Teacher, Bonnie Belshe, a firm believer in the educational benefits of hand-written notes, explains how she enforces this note-taking style to her students even during the struggles of online learning. 

“So the first thing I do for my students is explain the research behind it [hand-written notes] and how I want to set them [students] up to be successful with it,” Belshe said. “When someone understands that there is the reason behind it and not just ‘I like it better let’s do it this way,’ it’s what is going to be best for understanding, for learning, for processing, for getting essentials versus everything, and being able to understand those differences between them.”

The Paper-Pen Style in the MVHS Community

According to a survey of 48 MVHS students, 77.1% of the individuals claimed that they preferred taking notes on paper and 95.8% of the surveyed students claimed that they retained more information with the paper-pen style. These staggering statistics indicate a positive correlation between taking notes on paper and its educational benefits in the MVHS community. 

One individual from the survey, MVHS Junior Ananya Ragunpahta, explains why she prefers taking notes on paper. 

“I prefer taking notes on paper. Obviously, typing is faster, but because of that, there is a need to put everything on a google doc … whereas if I do my notes on hand, you are almost forcing yourself to condense it [the information] and figure out what’s important,” Ragunpahta said. “So you are sort of thinking of the information in a different way than you would otherwise.”

MVHS Junior Marissa Jensen, articulates how taking notes on paper helps her understand the material better. 

“I personally prefer taking notes on paper just because I feel like I retain the information better if I actually have to physically write it down on a sheet of paper,” Jensen said. “Whereas online when I’m typing, it [the information] just flows through my brain and I don’t actually feel like I’m comprehending the information as well.”

The Purpose of the Paper-Pen Style

With the rise of remote learning, there is an inclination for students to take notes and retain information through an online or technological platform. However, studies from neuroscientists have confirmed that taking notes on paper increases brain activity, which plays a vital role in retaining and understanding information for long periods of time. Although taking notes on a computer may seem more efficient, it inevitably hinders the activation of certain brain regions and therefore prevents an authentic learning process.

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