Cognitive Biases: Laptops vs Paper – a useful case study on how to remember things (oh and biases)

Before we get into the Wednesday series on cognitive biases and fallacies in full swing I thought it would be good to look at a simple case study that not only applies to how we fall into biases unconsciously, but also teaches us a little about how we process information. For a little while now there have been a series of articles floating around the web and popping up from time to time based on the 2014 study by Mueller & Oppenheimer on memory retention with long hand vs laptop note taking. 1

It’s quite a salient topic to look at with the focus on appropriate methods of pedagogy and learning in our modern society, and the sudden and sharp uptake of computers in the last two decades; thanks to Gordon Moore. Now the majority of these articles focus on the study setup by Mueller and Oppenheimer which looks at memory retention from a variety of TED talks when students were asked to take notes in two different modes: handwriting, and laptop note taking. That study found that students performed better at recognition tasks when handwriting rather than laptop note taking. From this the majority of the articles I have read simply conclude that handwriting is superior to laptop note taking, that in the laptops vs paper debate traditional methods come up trumps.

But is it really? Well before we get into the psychology behind learning and memory, it is worth noting a simple cognitive bias at play here. Confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a simple bias of taking note of the items or conclusions that fit our existing pattern of beliefs. Simply put the author of most of these articles sub-consciously eliminated the information that disagreed with their presupposition that using laptops in a classroom is detrimental to learning. Notably they ignored the link between laptop use and verbatim transcription, and the corresponding handwriting and synthesis based non-transcription.

This is just a simple example of the problem with cognitive biases. We simply have a lot of them, and they are excellent at blinding us to alternative data and explanations that challenge our presuppositions. Furthermore there is no malice behind the biases in many cases, which makes it harder to detect in a self-reflective manner. However, being aware of our presuppositions and our predisposition to cognitive biases significantly helps in identifying where our biases are affecting our reasoning and thinking. That is the main reason behind this Wednesday series, if we know more about some of the more common biases it should help us internally defeat them.


Biases aside and back to learning theory, as from the interview in this article: where thankfully the reporter has covered the whole of the study, Mueller reflects:

“We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of lecture content verbatim,… the people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down.”

This reflection shows the underlying cognitive working behind the study design of typing vs handwriting. Indeed the claim of better memory retention from handwritten versus typed comes from the level of cognitive engagement, as in thinking and processing, in the memory task. If you are cognitively engaged, such as you are when synthesising material for a paper, then the mode of recording has little consequence (so long as you record something to be able to find it again several months down the track).

There have been some studies done with low- and high-cognitive load tasks, along with possible low-cognitive load distraction tasks (flipping coins etc) which show its the load of the task that affects retention. Ultimately if you are cognitively disengaged, such as simply transcribing notes for a lecture, then the ‘harder’ cognitive task of handwriting will generally yield better results. 2

wpid-Photo-20141004215054I generally recommend that people take notes in a ‘cognitively difficult’ fashion. What constitutes cognitively difficult varies per person as well, for some it may involve reading around the subject before and after class, while for others it may be formulating interesting questions even if they are not asked in class. While for students who are learning in a non-native language it may actually mean typing verbatim, as the very act of thinking in a non-native language is a hard cognitive task. Indeed some of the students I had last year did this, and subsequently took photos of the whiteboard after class to supplement their notes. As per this amusing anecdote on James McGrath’s blog here. This probably wouldn’t be a useful task for many people with English as a native language, but for them working across a language barrier it helped with both retention and accuracy.

Realistically for long term memory retention the cognitive load should be high, and the material should be reviewed regularly. I recommend having a high cognitive engagement, even if it is via typing, but review after 24hours and then 3 days and 7 days. Furthermore if the task is able to be used in a synthesis fashion, by perhaps answering questions or writing a personal paper or synopsis on the lecture at hand, then this will reinforce the cognitive loading of the task as well. As from the Mueller & Oppenheimer study abstract the ultimate difference appears to be the act of ‘processing information and reframing it in their own words’ rather than the physical mechanism. So take notes well, and also take note of your cognitive biases.

Some tools for note taking will be coming up in future Monday posts, and look forward to more cognitive biases on Wednesdays. Tell me what your preferred note taking method is in the comments.


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  1. Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” Psychological Science, April 23, 2014, 0956797614524581. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581.
  2. Cf. Piolat et al, 2012; Makany et al, 2008 for cog load; and Schoen, 2012 for contra Mueller & Oppenheimer
  • Comment here 🙂

  • Benjamin Lee Sutton

    Does the heavier cognitive load (as desirable) translate to more periodic assessment, which could reinforce progression and maintenance of input?

    • Perhaps, although it would depend on how the assessment was conducted. Certainly progressive reinforcement is useful, especially with related rest periods (c.f. Tambini et. al, 2010).
      Part of it would have to do with what the desired learning outcomes are. If simple rote learning or topic memorisation then periodic assessment can help with cognitive load. However, if synthesis and fluency is desired then I would think a sustained load over time would be more useful.