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The Dartmouth
February 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Paper vs. Screen: Note-taking at Dartmouth

Students and faculty discuss the purpose of note-taking and the clash between traditional and technological methods of taking notes in class.

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Glancing across a Dartmouth classroom, it can be hard not to notice the different ways students take notes. Some hands, with pen or pencil in hand, rapidly fly across a sheet of paper, while others quickly type on a keyboard. However a student takes notes, it is clear that note-taking is a central component of college life and essential to a student’s understanding of class material. Nonetheless, the introduction of new technology in the past few decades has drastically changed how students take notes. According to a survey of graduate students at the University of North Carolina, 63% of students now use digital technology in the classroom. But which method is the most effective? And beyond that, how much should you write, and when should you study your notes?

Whatever the method, there appears to be a consensus on the purpose of note-taking. Philosophy professor James Binkoski highlighted how note-taking acts as a way of assembling material and concepts. 

“Note-taking is where you actually get your hands on the material and begin the process of actually constructing and organizing the material for yourself,” he said. 

Nataliya Braginsky, associate director of the Academic Skills Center, further emphasized how note-taking can help organize your thoughts.

“There’s the difference between writing down what the professor says or shows versus writing down your own thoughts and analysis,” she said. “It can be important to differentiate between the two in your notes.” 

Although the overall purpose of note-taking generally remains the same for different class structures, each requires its own specific techniques. Braginsky reinforced that there is no “one-size fits all method,” and that students should adapt to the formats their professors use. For example, many professors share their lecture slides after class, removing the necessity to diligently record every detail shared in class, according to Braginsky. 

In terms of the debate over digital note-taking versus paper and pencil, Braginsky said there are benefits to hand writing notes, particularly when it comes to recalling information. 

“I’ve definitely seen research that talks about how the physical act of writing helps more with memory than does typing,” she said.

Studies on the effects of writing on paper as opposed to typing on a laptop, such as the one conducted in 2021 by Ihari et. al., show that writing leads to higher rates of retention. Another 2021 study from the University of Tokyo suggested that even writing on a tablet is less effective than paper and pen. Paper is thus a traditional, yet still popular and reliable, method of note-taking. 

One such student who prefers paper and pencil is Lucy Korte ’25.

“If you’re trying to learn and memorize, I think pen and paper is definitely better,” she said.

Korte explained that she finds handwritten notes easier for reading-heavy classes, but it can get difficult to write at times when professors are lecturing quickly. 

Caden Marcum ’27, on the other hand, gravitates towards using an iPad in class, which allows for much more organization and combines the benefits of pencil and paper with the practicality of laptops.

“I like the functionality and accessibility that comes with an iPad. You can upload visual aids and diagrams that you can’t do with pen and paper,” he said.

Professors also have opinions on the topic and what they prefer to see their students using. Some even go so far as to enforce a “no electronics” rule, requiring hard copies of work. Government professor Sonu Bedi, for example, does not allow the use of laptops or electronic devices in his class, with the exception of accommodation for those with learning disabilities.

“[Paper and pencil note-taking] requires you to actually internalize what is being said,” Bedi explained.

Bedi also emphasized that notes taken through laptops are typically utilized solely in a “mirroring” process, in which a student copies down directly what the professor says because they are able to type faster than they can write. According to him, this note-taking style produces a “transcript,” which can be useful for later review, but ultimately does not allow the student to properly engage in class by asking questions or thinking about the material. Instead, the student worries about copying lectures down word for word.

Binkoski agreed with this statement, but acknowledged that there are ways to make this style effective.

“[Transcription] could be okay, if you then follow up the class by sitting down with your [written] “transcript” and saying, ‘okay, now let me do the construction processes,’ such as identifying key terms, definitions and theses,” Binkoski said. 

For example, Korte utilizes her laptop during classes she knows that she cannot keep up with if she takes notes with pen and paper. She can copy down the Professor almost word for word, which then allows her to go back later to “fill in the gaps” of her understanding.  

One benefit of using digital technology is the ability to access all of your information in one place, instead of keeping track of papers and notebooks.

“Why flip through an entire notebook to find something when I could have it on a file and just open it up?” Marcum said.

However, the most critical issue to the use of digital technology for note-taking is distraction. When utilizing a laptop for note-taking, one is presented with numerous diversions, such as other tabs or text messages. 

“We only have one hour together in class, and only 50% of the time are you really focused on the content. So you're really short changing yourself,” Binkoski said.

Furthermore, according to English and creative writing professor Jeffrey Sharlet, laptops can prevent proper connection between a student and their professor or other classmates.

“[Computers] are meant to take [you] elsewhere … so if I have a screen, and you’re talking, and I’m taking notes, I’ve actually got a barrier,” he said.  “And it’s a psychological barrier.”

Of the students and professors interviewed, most agreed that note-taking through the paper and pencil method is the most effective but still highlighted that no matter the method, there are ways to make the most of note-taking. 

Bedi suggested that it is important to reach out to your professor to discuss what is most important to recall from a class, as faculty members will often tell you “what to focus on.” 

In addition, though notes can prove to be helpful in learning, in general, it is not always necessary to review the notes, and a student may never come back to them, according to Sharlet. However, in his view, the existence of the notes allows the student to choose what to do with them and “immerse [themselves] in the notes.”

Whatever method students use in their classes, note-taking can be a key facet of a student’s education. Although it can help or hinder one’s learning, ultimately, the choice of how to take notes is up to the student.