I have always suspected that the act of taking notes by hand reinforced learning – I know that it does for me. But I have also been suspect of my own suspicions – what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for the rest of the population. Now I have corroboration, from this article from Harvard no less.
It is clear on two counts that the use of laptops, tablets, and phones in the classroom need to be significantly curtailed or focused. First, is that these devices are significant distractions. Most applications are default set with a dizzying array of visual and audible notifications, many of which are hard to figure out how to turn off. Second, the processing of information is different when done by hand or keyboard.
This article from Treehugger puts the Harvard article in a different way, and focuses more on the processing that the brain is engaged in when taking notes by hand rather than with the keyboard. And this other article from Treehugger goes into more detail on the multiple benefits of writing by hand rather than on the keyboard, my favorite being the improved composition.
This is a conundrum, because these devices can be genuinely useful tools for learning, and in many cases now they are the instruction. I am currently teaching two classes. One is a presentation techniques class that is focused on digital representation tools. The other is a class in construction concepts for interior designers.
In the presentation class, the computer must be used. But I see the problems, and have experienced them myself. You are introduced to a new technique in an application, and you immediately get immersed in the act of trying to replicate or apply it. Meanwhile, the instructor is plowing on, and becomes a mere buzzing in the background. Finally, you pull yourself out of the machine. Wait what? What did I just miss? And unlike a YouTube or Lynda, you can’t go back. A learning opportunity has been lost.
The Construction class is a different matter. I have a lot of international students, and while their English is pretty good, they use their devices to look up words. Sometimes. Sometimes they are just checking text messages. Or Facebook. I’m still trying to figure out how to put these devices to good use in these kinds of environments. Treasure hunts on the internet is maybe one thing, but I can’t do that every class. It is a work in progress. In the meantime, turn off the dings, buzzes, pop-ups, and other distractions that keep you from your focus.