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 a 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 article 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 of each method.
  • How to decide which note-taking method is best for you.


Note-taking and your memory

Overall, research shows that taking notes by hand generally allows you to remember the material better. This has been shown in a number of studies on the topic, ranging from those which examined memory in general, to those which examined note-taking methods in a classroom setting. For example:

In the case of taking notes during lectures, the main issue with typing is that people are more predisposed to engage in verbatim note-taking when they type, in comparison with when they write their notes by hand. This means that when using a laptop, people tend to just type whatever the speaker or lecturer says, in a way that involves a relatively shallow cognitive processing of the material.

In comparison, writing down the material by hand usually involves a more in-depth processing, since people tend to give more consideration to which parts of the material they should write down, as opposed to just transcribing 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 transcribing it verbatim. However, you need to be aware of your abilities, and honest with yourself regarding whether you can actually do this 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. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to improve if you actively work on your note-taking skills, especially if you dedicate yourself to it in the long-term, but it does mean that you should be wary, and honestly ask yourself whether taking notes on a computer is hindering your learning.


Factors to consider when deciding how to take notes

Conceptual versus factual learning

The way in which you’re expected to interact with the material that you’re learning matters when choosing which note-taking method to use.

In doing this, you should consider whether you’re expected to engage more in factual learning, meaning that you’re primarily expected to memorize specific details in the material, or in conceptual learning, meaning that you’re expected to reach a thorough understanding of the underlying concepts in the material.

Specifically, the advantages of taking notes by hand are more significant in the case of conceptual learning, since it requires a deeper processing of the material compared to factual learning, which only necessitates a shallow interaction with the material. Accordingly, if you’re taking notes for a subject which requires conceptual understanding of the material, you should be more predisposed to taking notes by hand, as opposed to typing them on a computer.


Access and distractions

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

The advantage of having access to such tools is that you can look things up during the lecture if the lecturer is unclear, or if you want to examine supplemental material.

The disadvantage of having access to more tools while on your computer is that you also have access to a lot more distractions. This can be detrimental to your leaning, since multitasking on your laptop during lectures has been shown to significantly hinder students’ learning. You can try and mitigate this in various ways, such as by blocking your access to sites or programs which you know might distract you, but this doesn’t always work.

However, keep in mind that writing notes by hand doesn’t mean that you don’t have access to any distractions. For example, if you tend to constantly check your phone when you’re not on your computer, then you might encounter similar issues when taking notes by hand. Overall, this means that you need to be self-aware and reflective when thinking which note-taking platform allows you to concentrate better.


Length and type of text

Writing by hand tends to make you more succinct, since people can generally type more quickly than they can write. 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.

Conversely, typing allows you to write down more 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 later. Therefore, decide whether you will benefit more from being brief and concise, or from covering all the details which are mentioned. 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 better notes by typing, even if it comes at the cost of not processing the material as much as when you’re writing them by hand.


Practical benefits of digital notes

There are a few advantages to typing your notes on a computer as opposed to writing them by hand, which are not directly related to your memorization ability, but which 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).

These are all things which don’t directly influence your learning ability, but which you should still take into account when deciding whether to type notes up or write them by hand.


Figuring out what works for you

As with any similar decision, there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to choosing which method is best for you, it’s impossible to say that one note-taking method will work better for everyone in 100% of cases.

Furthermore, different methods might work better in different scenarios, and this depends both on the nature of the material that you need to remember of learning, as well as on the way you will utilize your notes later on.

Accordingly, when deciding how to take notes, you should try things out for yourself and find out which method works for you. The following guidelines can serve as be helpful in helping you figure out which note-taking method will generally be preferable in which case:

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, which 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 that you need to write down, and taking notes 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 transcribing 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, and depends on your study techniques and preferences.

Other advantages of digital notes are that they’re simpler to edit and fix, easier to search through, and are more reliable in terms of backups. However, working on a digital device can open you up to more distractions, which is detrimental to your learning if you’re not careful.


Summary and conclusions

  • Writing notes by hand generally improves your understanding of the material and helps you remember it better, as writing it down involves deeper cognitive-processing than typing it.
  • The main issue with typing is that it encourages people to transcribe 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 in advance.
  • Despite the fact that typing notes on a computer doesn’t promote as much cognitive processing of the material, both writing notes by hand and typing them are valid note-taking methods, 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 reach a conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding).
  • Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, or 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, the use of a computer potentially opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.