Taking Notes vs. Taking a Picture of Notes; Which Wins?

Although I have seen this picture before, I saw it tweeted again recently:

Taking Notes

Although this seems like a no-brainer as a method to quickly capture information, there is also the challenge that if you want to “retain” information, writing it down is a much better method.  In an article titled, “Want to retain information? Take notes with a pen, not a laptop”, the author shares the following:

To examine the possible advantages of longhand note taking, researchers from Princeton and UCLA subjected students to several TED Talks and then – after a break featuring “distractor tasks” designed to disrupt memory – quizzed them on their recall of the content. Students were equipped with either (internet-free) laptops or paper notebooks while they watched the talks and instructed to take notes as they normally would for a class. Test questions included both factual recall (names, dates, etc.) or conceptual applications of the information.

Because the quantity and quality of notes have been previously shown to impact academic performance, students’ notes were also analyzed for both word count, and the degree to which they contained verbatim language from the talks. In general, students who take more notes fare better than those who fewer notes, but when those notes contain more verbatim overlap (the mindless dictation issue) performance suffers. As one might expects, students who watched the TED Talks equipped with laptop were able to take down more notes, since typing kicks hand-writing’s butt in terms of speed. However, the luxury of quick recording also resulted in the typed notes having significantly more verbatim overlap than the written ones, and this was reflected in test scores. While, laptop and longhand note takers both fared similarly on factual questions, those taking the tedious pen-and-paper notes had a definite edge on the conceptual questions. So while laptops allowed students to generate more notes (on average a good thing), their tendency to encourage writing down information word-for-word appeared to hinder the processing of information.

So one is easier and much less time consuming, and one seems to improve the ability to “retain” information and be able to share it back.  So which one is better for learning?

How about neither?

The ability to simply obtain information and recite it back is not necessarily learning as much as it is regurgitation.  I might better be able to retain the facts shared, but it doesn’t mean I understand them.  On the other hand, if I am taking a picture, putting it in my camera roll and doing nothing with that information, then really, what good is that?

What is important here is how you make your own connections for deep learning.  Taking a picture is obviously much less time consuming (why would not just give the information over in the first place?) than writing notes, so with the extra time, the ability to do something with the information is where the powerful opportunities for learning happen.  For example, taking this picture and writing a blog post on it, will help me more than simply retweeting the picture out in the first place.  When I speak, I try to challenge people to create something with the information I have shared, whether it is write a blog post, reflection, podcast, video, or any other type of media.  If they really want to process what I have shared, they will need to make their own connections, not the connections I have made for them.

Having easy access to the information is great, but what we do with it, is what really matters.

“The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).” Thomas Friedman


  1. Jill Hobson said:

    Thank you for bringing this issue forward. I have wrestled so much with the issue of note-taking. I’m not a fan. I find mindless note-taking to be a waste of a learning exercise. I don’t see that it actually leads to any deep and rich thinking. I’d be really excited to see an example of note-taking that does lead to something deeper, richer and more meaningful. So far my own learning experiences and the ones I’ve observed seem to use note-taking as a means of rote memorization. So why do it?

    September 16, 2015
  2. Grabe said:

    Note-taking serves two purposes – external storage and generative learning. If learners meet certain conditions ( poor background knowledge, processing challenges), they may be better off capturing the notes and listening.

    September 16, 2015
  3. Debbie said:

    Lets teach STUDENTS TO DECIDE if they need to take notes!

    September 17, 2015
  4. Gord Holden said:

    Sorry, but cannot relate to this conversation at all. Each of these students possess a research tool that allows them as a group to access and evaluate far more diverse content regarding any subject than any teacher could hope to offer. Yet, they are using this tool to take a picture of the teacher’s (or publisher’s) limited content and perspective? How tragic! What should be on the screen is the compiled notes generated by the students in consultation with each other, and where necessary the teacher. This picture denotes for me a much deeper issue of an opportunity lost for students to be engaged in deeper, active learning, not only about the subject, but how to screen and organize the content. This is what could be taking place under the guidance of a teacher, and in this case (and how many others), is not.

    September 17, 2015
  5. Sean Thomas said:

    RAM vs. ROM…. Synthetic thought requires a fundamental base of factual knowledge before meaningful connections can be made. Conceptual understanding is directly linked to to these connections. Without a solid foundation of understanding further conceptual synthesis is improbable.

    It is often said that with the advent of technology students have access to a greater breadth of factual knowledge than ever before but it is seldom discussed how inefficient genuine higher-order thought processes would be without the capacity to readily access pertinent factual information or prior related connections. Hence the RAM vs. ROM argument. Too much emphasis is being put on conceptual understanding at too early an age and it is being done at the expense of retention of fundamental facts. Later in life when increasingly complex concepts are being discussed the students are finding themselves at a disadvantage by not having ready access to previously taught content material. Yes they can look it up but many don’t know what they should even be searching for.

    Retention is a vital component of student learning and the abuse of technology as illustrated above is an indicator of the decay of rigour in our post-modern educational paradigm. Significant energy must be expended by both staff and student with respect to training towards effective use of technology in an educational setting. Simply providing technology without this support is a malignant practice that actually encourages a reduction in student learning.

    September 17, 2015
  6. Dean said:

    The image, complete with ‘meme’ type message is misleading. It does not represent the body of the text, which in itself moves off into a floored series of claims. The issue here is not how to deliver and record content, but the nature of the assessment and corresponding sociological factors. The photo has no caption and the photographer is unknown. The students are used as symbols. Where is this photo taken? What is the significance of the text being shown to them?

    To me, this is interesting simply because it exemplifies an increasing amount of ‘evocative media’ being used to generate clicks and to help filter in-group and out-group people. Even more interestingly, the article is based on assumption TED talks are anything more than storytelling and mass entertainment. Statistically, most TED talk speakers are also selling books or speaking services for profit.

    There’s nothing wrong with a cognitive apprenticeship and remembering facts. Google has not changed this reality, not does it support equity or offer any measurable level of quality assurance. Rather it uses its market power to foster brand loyalty and ‘train’ students to use its products, validated by teachers (authority figures). Apple is hardly different in its approach to branding and sales, aside from having a much longer history doing it.

    The key here is not to resolve binary arguments, but to seriously question the growing media construction of what childhood and learning has become in post modern times. It’s hard to apply a scholarly debate to what is an article setting out to create division.

    September 17, 2015
  7. Ari Yares said:

    I’m one of those people who frequently captures pictures of the whiteboard or even the PowerPoint slide. It’s not that I’m not interested in taking notes – I do a lot of writing or typing during these kinds of talks. It’s that I’m interested in transforming what I hear so that I can better retain it. This might be through participating in a sidebar conversation through Twitter or jotting down impressions or ideas that the presentation triggers. Let the students take their pictures, but challenge them on what they are doing with the information (and even the picture).

    September 22, 2015

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