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Have you ever seen a classroom full of students typing furiously into a laptop computer during a lecture? Perhaps you do this yourself during meetings or seminars. Apparently it’s not such a good idea—science tells us that typing notes is less effective than the old-school pen and paper method. In fact, a Princeton study found that when laptops are used solely to take notes, it may actually impair deep conceptual learning.

Why does this happen? Researchers posit two reasons.

The first is that laptops come with lots of distractions and therefore add another attentiveness burden for the user—thank you, Internet. Secondly, note taking on a laptop in a lecture setting tends toward verbatim transcription, and thereby reduces the cognitive processing that happens when notes are jotted out by hand. Think about when you make a handwritten note. You digest what you see and hear, and make a note to yourself about what you are thinking at that moment in order to remember it. There is a deliberate brain process at play.

Science connects handwriting and cognitive pathways in the brain

Academics have sufficiently probed the connection between handwriting, learning and recall in children of all ages. An Indiana University study of pre-literate kindergarteners’ MRI data shows how handwriting exercises stimulated the learning centers in students’ brains at a higher level compared to typing or tracing activities.

In older students, a University of Washington study demonstrates how printing, cursive writing, and keyboarding each produce unique brain patterns; when students compose text by hand, they express more words and ideas and have an increased overall brain activation.

For anyone that remembers taking notes by hand, these findings probably are not surprising.

One University of Kansas professor, annoyed with students burying their faces in laptops in her lectures, banned them for a semester. Her theory, based on her own pre-digital college experience, was that students would learn better with a pen and paper—mostly because it vanquished the urge to “multi-task” (IM friends) during lecture time. By her students’ accounts, a computer-less lecture setting increased absorption during lectures.

Using pen and paper for note taking is great for digesting content, but keeping paper materials organized is another story. Applying computer technology to the job of keeping notes and study materials together gives students a fighting chance. A good touch screen laptop, stylus, and note taking software bring us the best of both worlds—the cognitive benefits of handwriting, and a computer‘s filing system.

What are good apps for taking notes with a tablet and stylus?

There are dozens of choices that help turn your tablet or 2-in-1 into a computerized pad of paper. Many tablet manufactures bundle in proprietary software. Here are just a few popular app choices for taking handwritten notes.

  • Microsoft OneNote is a free application that lets you get relatively sophisticated with note taking while at the same time keeping it pretty simple functionality-wise. Students can import PDF class materials and write directly to them using a stylus. Watch below how Microsoft education expert Matthew O’Brien is able to use a tablet to implement the popular Cornell Notes method using a tablet.

  • Evernote is another popular free application wherein you can import PDFs and notate on them, insert pictures and audio, and share them across other devices. For a deeper dive, educator Greg Kulowiec offers a good rundown of different uses for Evernote in the classroom.
  • Noteshelf (iPad only) ($5.99) has Adobe’s Photoshop Sketch built in, which makes it easier to make finer notes if needed. Here is a good account from an educator about using Noteshelf in a language arts setting.

Which tablets are recommended for note taking?

Certain types of touchscreens and styluses make capturing handwritten notes easier. Certain tablets have an extra digital layer embedded in their displays to detect minute levels of pressure which results in a finer, more pen-like feel. Stylus manufacturer Wacom is at the forefront of this technology.

The Surface Pro 3 and the Surface 3, when combined the Wacom-made Surface Pen, are widely respected for accurate, precise and comfortable note taking. Users like that the pen has two buttons designed to ease erasing features, though some users complain about not being able to erase with the back end of the pen. Both Surface computers offer spacious 10.8-inch displays for taking notes.

Surface 3 with red typecover

Surface 3 with red typecover

Related content: Surface 3 or Surface Pro 3? Pick the Right Windows Hybrid

If you prefer Android, the SAMSUNG Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 and its Wacom-made Intuitive S-Pen is a good option to explore. It is capable of capturing varying brush stroke thickness which gives students finer control over their note taking.  S Note, SAMSUNG’s note taking application, will be familiar to OneNote users. The screen size is a jumbo 12.2 inches.


SAMSUNG Galaxy Note Pro 12.2″

A more compact choice is the 8-inch display TOSHIBA Encore 2, which runs Windows and features the very accurate TruPen stylus which (surprise!) is also designed by Wacom. The TruPen can detect 2,048 unique levels of pressure and picks up the smallest nuances of your handwriting.

The ASUS Chi T100 transformer book delivers an intermediate screen size at 10-inches and has a thin, lightweight build to match. The Active Stylus Pen (developed by Synaptics) offers all the precision needed for note taking with 256 pressure levels.  With models priced below $400, the Chi gives you a lot of production bang for the buck.

asus chi

Asus T100 Chi

Let us know in the comments—how do you prefer to take notes on a tablet?

For Better Comprehension, Use a Tablet to Write Notes
Article Name
For Better Comprehension, Use a Tablet to Write Notes
Do you use a tablet to write notes for lectures and meetings? You should--it stimulates the cognitive connection between handwriting notes and learning.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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