Why I’m taking notes by hand

Today after I left a meeting with many Wheaton colleagues in the natural sciences, more than one person inquired about my taking notes by hand in the meeting. Apparently, using pen and paper, as opposed to a laptop, tablet, or phone, is now remarkable. That or I’m just known for using an assortment of electronic devices, so that my use of pen and paper is noteworthy.

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about returning to pen and paper for most of my note-taking. Last week, I decided to pull the trigger and get… a notebook. No, not another notebook computer. A notebook. (Cue the Ikea “bookbook” advertisement. Genius.)

Why would I do this? Isn’t it way more efficient to take notes on a computer and make them available across all of your electronic devices? Isn’t it easier to organize them if I type them up on my computer?

Well, here are four reasons I’m doing this:

  1. Research seems to suggest that we may recall better what we write with pen and paper. It may be something about the movement. It may be something about writing something somewhere (e.g., bottom right, top middle) on a page and seeing the spatial relationship between one note and another. (I experience this with reading and tend to remember in much more detail whatever I read in hard copy. Page number, location on a page, context [what comes before and after] are all more easily recalled when I’ve read in hard copy.) It may be the resistance. It may be all of the above and more. But it does seem we tend to recall things better when we write them out by hand. 
  2. It’s less awkward in social situations. When I pull out a notebook and start writing things down (e.g., something to remember, something to do), I don’t get the same dirty looks that I get when I pull out my phone, tablet, or laptop. People seem to trust that I’m actually doing something related to our meeting. Fewer dirty looks=less explaining to do (e.g., “I may be looking at my phone, but I’m really writing down what you just said”).
  3. It’s less distracting. When I pull out my phone, tablet, or laptop to take notes, I almost always see unrelated notifications – texts, emails, phone calls, Facebook notices, tweets, sports news, weather updates – that have just come in. I may even get more notifications while I’m taking notes. This is not to mention the temptation to switch apps and actively seek out some news while I’m taking notes. Sometimes I deserve the dirty looks.
  4. I require it of my students, so I figured I should give it a try again myself. A few months back, I indefinitely suspended the use of all portable electronic devices in my classes, and I did it because 1) I thought it would be better for almost every individual student (there are exceptions) and 2) it’s likely better for every group of students. That is, even when an individual student is slightly better off taking notes with an electronic device, it risks significant negative effects on the entire class. I don’t fancy myself the exception to those rules. Even if I am, I wanted to experience first-hand the transition that many of my students are experiencing (and, to their credit, none of them are complaining) under my new policy. 

So that’s why I’ve recently been taking notes by hand. Will it work?

Lots of things could go wrong:

  • I may not write very legibly. My penmanship may be among the worst I’ve ever seen, but it got me far enough before laptops, tablets, and phones were viable note-taking tools.
  • It’s possible I’ll forget either the notebook or a pen at a key time. Back when I was in ROTC, I don’t think a week went by that I wasn’t dinged for not having on hand what I needed to take notes. I’ll have to do better than that.
  • I could lose my notebook and thus regret not taking notes in format that automatically syncs across all devices, but I’ll be snapping photos of my notes (no, I won’t be snapping the photos in the meetings!) just in case, and those notes will be synced across devices for later retrieval.

But lots of things could go right:

  • I could remember better what I’ve written and have better recall of context.
  • Things could be less awkward and my technology – the notebook – could be less distracting.
  • I may just have a better idea how my students are experiencing my ban on portable electronic devices in the classroom.

Any one of those may be reason enough for me to stick with the notebook. We’ll see how it goes.

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