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