Handwritten vs. Typed Notes: Which Type of Note-Taking is More Effective?

I've always wondered why more people didn't take digital notes--it was faster, more efficient, and seemed to just be an all-around better option than on-paper note-taking. Why write 20 words per minute when you could type 100 words per minute? Without the hand cramps?

But while doing my research for this article, I came across some rather convincing evidence as to why handwritten notes still are a worthy contender against typed notes. Students who took handwritten notes claimed that handwriting their notes helped them retain the information they wrote down more easily. Because it's more difficult to write quickly than type quickly, students who handwrite their notes are forced to instantly pick out the important parts of a teacher's statement and write down only the most critical bits in their notes.

Digital note-taking, however, has many benefits as well. Being able to get down more information more quickly means that students have more material to work with when they get home and start studying. And of course, new technologies like the iPad Pro paired with the Apple Pencil offer users an experience that was previously exclusive to traditional pen-and-paper writing.

Let's take a look at these two types of note-taking and break down the features and benefits of each.

nongenerative vs. generative note-taking

As stated by this article on NPR, there are two types of note-taking: nongenerative and generative.

Students take nongenerative notes when they write down word-for-word what their teacher says, with little to no cognitive effort used to make connections or fully absorb the information.

Generative note-taking involves interpreting the information instead of just writing it down verbatim. Making mind-maps, writing down one's own thoughts and questions, as well as paraphrasing what a teacher says are all examples of generative note-taking, and demonstrates much more cognitive processing on the student's part.

One of the main arguments for taking handwritten notes instead of typed notes is that typing one's notes makes nongenerative note-taking easier, while writing out notes by hand encourages generative note-taking by forcing students to paraphrase and consolidate information right in the moment. The speed at which students are able type on a laptop can actually be a hindrance if students choose to just write down word-for-word what they hear in a lecture instead of making more rich connections and actually thinking about the information they're hearing as they type it.

In fact, in a study conducted by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, it was determined that "even when they specifically told students using laptops to try to avoid writing things down verbatim," the students couldn't overcome the instinct to directly copy the information they were hearing. 

The ability to sort out what information is important and what isn't is a valuable skill that can be lost when students are not confronted with the constant challenge of writing out notes by hand. Being forced to write more slowly means that students have to carefully choose which words to write down, whereas students who type their notes have the ability to write down exactly what the teacher says. Writing out notes by hand puts students in a more active mindset during class, which allows them to more fully absorb and process the information.


Another argument against typed notes is that students can easily get distracted by all of the other, irrelevant websites they have access to on their laptops. These distractions might mean that they aren't paying attention is class, therefore missing key parts of the lecture and not taking good notes.

While this is a valid argument, there are several valid and obvious work-arounds. Many schools block certain websites (typically social media sites) on their networks, which means that students are not even able to access these websites when using their devices inside the school. 

There are also apps like SelfControl which allow users to block certain websites on their computers for a certain amount of time. This app was designed so that people could focus on working for a duration of time instead of getting distracted by other websites. And if students have the self-discipline to use apps like these, they can prove to be an extremely valuable tool.

which is easier to use?

In general, typed notes are easier to deal with and organize. By using apps like Evernote, Microsoft OneNote and Notability, students who take digital notes can categorize their notes into different "notebooks" or sections, and more easily find certain notes from certain classes later on. Handwritten notes seem to have the tendency to get lost or attract spills and other damage, rendering them unusable. 

Additionally, typed notes can be searched for specific keywords or headings, making it simple to locate a certain topic within one's notes. This can make for much more efficient and streamlined studying.

Digital notes are also accessible on any device--by syncing one's files across a laptop, a phone or a tablet, students can view their notes anywhere, at any time. Studying during commutes, while waiting on line or before bed becomes easier when notes are accessible on students' phones, something that they usually have with them 24/7.

However, there are some aspects of handwritten notes that can't be recreated on a laptop. It's basically impossible to quickly draw a legible diagram or sketch on a laptop, while it's something that can be easily done with a pen and paper. 

reviewing is what matters

Although making in-class connections through the process of generative note-taking can be extremely beneficial to learning, it's important to review notes after class as well. And when it comes to review, typed notes seem to be more efficient.

By typing notes, students are able to get more information down more quickly, meaning that they will have more to work with and review later on. And if students review rigorously and often after class, they can afford to take nongenerative notes in class, as it will mean that they will have more material to study from afterwards.


With the advanced, rich state of the Internet, a question that quickly surfaces is: What exactly is the point of taking notes in class if students can just look up the information later?

And this is a valid question. Online resources like Khan Academy and YouTube make it easy for students to self-learn most of the topics they learn in school. Of course, this doesn't mean that school is pointless, but it does signify that perhaps getting all of the information down in class isn't as important anymore.

The actual information students write down in their notes might not be as important as it used to be, what with the Internet and other resources so readily available to them at home. But what still remains valuable about in-person lectures and classes is the interactivity of it all. Instead of focusing on getting every last word down into their notes, students should instead realize what is unique about their in-person class experience and focus on asking questions, participating, and actively listening

Having a high-quality class experience and making richer connections might be more important now than gathering all of the information one possibly can. This idea lends itself more to handwritten notes, as writing out notes forces students, as was mentioned earlier, to take generative notes, meaning that they will become more acquainted with the topic during class than if they were to just mindlessly copy what they heard.

digital notes 2.0

It should be mentioned, however, that "digital notes" is no longer equivalent to "a Microsoft Word document filled with text." There are other ways of taking digital notes now that are, in a sense, the best of both the handwritten and typed worlds.

Enter... the tablet and the stylus! Technologies like the iPad Pro paired with the Apple Pencil or the Microsoft Surface paired with the Surface Pen make for a streamlined, efficient note-taking process that combines the two methods we've discussed in this article.

Students can still handwrite their notes on a tablet by using a tablet, but can also easily organize and categorize them. They can also store all of their notes on one device instead of lugging around extra pounds of notebooks and papers and pens and folders. These notes can be then synced onto other devices and used to study on-the-go after class.

what should you do?

Note-taking is an extremely personal thing--some people like to take tons of notes, while others can get by with just a few. Some people handwrite their notes and have a strict color code, while others type their notes.

A mix of both typing and handwriting your notes seems to be what works best. A few combinations of these methods are:

  • Handwrite your notes in class, and then type them up later. While digitizing them, add to them using information from other sources and online videos. If you'd like, you can then print them out and annotate them as well!
  • Write your notes on a tablet using a stylus. As with the previous method, you can add to your notes later on by embellishing them with more information you find online.
  • Type your notes in class and then rigorously annotate them later. Print out your typed notes after class and then annotate them like crazy. Write your thoughts, questions and connections in the margins, highlight, underline and actively read over your notes. No passive studying, here folks!

good luck!

No matter which method you choose, I hope that this article was useful in helping you make a decision between the two (or deciding to take notes using a combination of both!).

Let me know how you take notes in the comments! I'd love to hear about your own system!

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