Handwriting vs. Typing: How to Choose the Best Method to Take Notes

Writing notes by hand versus typing them up on a laptop.


A common question people ask is whether you should write notes by hand or type them up on the computer. In short, studies generally show that writing notes by hand allows you to remember the material better than typing it. However, when it comes to actually choosing which method you should use, the answer is more complicated than that.


The following post will show you:

  • How each method affects the way you remember the material.
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method.
  • How you can counteract some of the disadvantages.
  • How to decide which method is best for you.


Note-taking and your memory

As previously stated, taking notes by hand generally allows you to remember the material better. This has been shown in a number of studies, ranging from more abstracts studies examining memory in general, to those examining specific note-taking methods in classes:

In the case of taking notes in lectures, the main issue with typing is that people are more predisposed to engage in verbatim note-taking when they type, as opposed to when they write the notes by hand. This means that they just type whatever the speaker/lecturer says, and this type of note-taking involves relatively shallow cognitive processing of the material. In comparison, writing down the material by hand usually involves a more in-depth processing of the material, where you don’t just write everything the speaker says word-for-word.

Being aware of this issue might allow you to take better notes while typing, as long as you focus on how to summarize and rephrase the material, instead of just typing it verbatim. However, you need to be aware of your abilities, and honest with yourself regarding whether you can actually do that successfully. Testing shows that in most cases, telling students to avoid taking verbatim notes when typing doesn’t actually lead to an improvement in their note-taking.


Important factors to considers

Conceptual versus factual testing

The way in which you’re expected to interact with the material matters, and there is a difference between conceptual and factual learning. In the case of conceptual learning you’re expected to reach a thorough understanding of the material, as opposed to factual learning, where you’re mostly expected to know specific details. The advantages of taking notes by hand are more significant in the case of conceptual learning, and are less notable in the case of factual learning.


Access and distractions

When you type, you have access to a lot of other tools on your computer. This can be either beneficial or detrimental to your learning.

The benefits: you can look things up during the lecture, find clarifications to questions you might have, and use material the lecturer provides.

The disadvantages: you have a lot more distractions available. Don’t underestimate the negative impact that this can have on you: multitasking on your laptop during lectures has been shown to significantly hinder students’ learning ability. However, you can try and mitigate this in various ways, such as by blocking your access to sites/programs which you know are a distraction for you.


Length and type of text

Writing by hand tends to make you more succinct, as people can generally type text more quickly than they can write it. This can be an advantage, since it means you only include the more important details in your notes. However, if you are forced to be so brief that you omit minor-but-necessary details, this can become an issue. Typing allows you to write all of these details, but the disadvantage of writing too much is that you might end up drowning in unnecessary details, which makes it more difficult to study. Therefore, decide if you benefit more from being brief, or from including all the details. This also has to do with how you’re expected to know the material (i.e. conceptual vs. factual understanding), as we previously saw.

In addition, keep in mind that:


Preferences and study technique

Sometimes you may not feel comfortable writing by hand, because it’s too slow for you, or because you’re not familiar enough with the material to process it during the lecture. If you rely on going over the material after the lecture, it can be beneficial to produce more accurate notes by typing, even if it comes at the cost of not understanding the material as much as you’re writing it.


Practical benefits of digital notes

There are a few advantages to typing your notes which are not directly related to your memorization ability, but are still important to consider:

  • Digital notes are easier to edit and fix.
  • Digital notes are easier to search through.
  • Digital notes are more reliable, especially if you back them up appropriately (i.e. there’s no chance of forgetting your notebook somewhere and losing a year’s worth of notes).
  • Digital notes are easier to share (though some people may consider this to be a disadvantage).


Finding what works for you

As always, there are tons of variables which can effect which choice is best for you. Try things out for yourself and find our which method you prefer. Keep in mind that different methods might be better in different situations. This depends both on the nature of the material, as well as on your end goal for the notes.

Overall, you can generally use the following guidelines to decide which method to use:

  • Taking notes by hand works best when you want to fully process the material as you’re writing it down. It’s especially helpful when you’re expected to achieve a conceptual understanding of the material, and when the material you need to write down isn’t convenient to type up on a computer. The main issue with writing things by hand is that it’s relatively slow, so it can be problematic if you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the speaker.
  • Typing your notes works best if there is a lot of material you need to write down, and writing by hand isn’t convenient or fast enough. You tend to process the material less as you’re typing it, especially if you end up just typing everything verbatim, so you will probably have to rely more on going over the material after you finish taking the notes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are situations where you might care more about having higher-quality notes that you can peruse at a later date. Other advantages of digital notes are that they’re simpler to edit/fix, easier to search through, and are more reliable in terms of backups. However, working on a digital device (as opposed to writing things down in a notebook) opens you up to more distractions, which can be detrimental to your learning if you’re not careful.


Summary and conclusions

  • Writing notes by hand generally improves your understanding of the material, as it involves deeper cognitive processing than typing them.
  • The main issue with typing is that it causes people to copy the material verbatim, exactly as presented by the speaker, which means that they don’t process the material as much. This is difficult to avoid even if you’re aware of the issue.
  • Both writing notes by hand and typing them are valid strategies, and each can be preferable in different situations, as they both have their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Writing by hand is better if you need to process the material as you’re writing it, and especially if you’re expected to have conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding).
  • Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, and if you’re planning to go over the material again later. It has the added bonus of making the text easier to edit and search through. However, it also opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.