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Paper vs Computers - a fight to the death

I have always been a “paper person” and it seemed, to me at least, that someone was either one or the other. It was a debate that I also found was talked about in schools, the general consensus that writing was better for memory retention.

Throughout high school I took notes and rewrote them, my horrendous handwriting barely legible (looks like I have that doctor stereotype down already).

University then begun. It seemed to take me ages to write the notes and so I started to type them up, especially in the case of biochemistry, this definitely helped with adding pictures. I had been interested in art when I was younger and therefore look to drawing main organs and muscle groups as I was learning it in anatomy. However, I suddenly found myself four weeks behind lectures, struggling to catch up because handwriting took too long. I then changed my strategy, frantically typing up notes for my exams that semester. Results came and I found myself disappointed, I didn’t get as good marks as I had hoped.

I figured it was due to typing up notes, that it wasn’t the way I learnt. Then in the holidays I had a talk with a friend who uses an iPad Pro for her notes and she loved it. I did some research and decided to invest in one and got an apple pencil to go along with it.

I am now heading towards my final exams for this semester and using the tablet for notes has changed how I learn. It’s ability to allow me to crop photos into the page but also annotate it with handwritten notes seemed to have made a difference.

Before I did this however, I did want to compare handwriting and typing notes in terms of learning. It has been a hotly debated topic – while typing is faster, the slow action of handwriting makes is necessary to paraphrase and transform the information into something that you might understand better. This ‘active learning’ of thinking about the content makes it stay in your brain, increasing the ability to recall it.

I did wonder, since I was writing on a tablet, would this make a difference? It’s the same motor action use on paper, just written on a screen. So I went to my lectures, downloaded the pdf of the slides, annotated them on my iPad and then transcribed them to a note-taking app. Then, once mid-semester exam arrived, I printed them out, highlighting and going over the diagrams I had either drawn or put in from the internet.

My own personal iPad notes

I actually felt better about the content and did have an increase in marks.

Writing on a tablet also saved me time, eliminating the need to painstakingly draw anatomical features and I could take notes on the ferry (I commute an hour and a half to university).

But, knowing what I know now, and also for this article, I took a few days of writing notes in a book with a (real) pen. I went to my labs and my lectures, handwriting the content and for some reason I actually could remember it more?

Despite it being the same action, writing on an iPad felt different. While there’s a large chance this could have been my own bias, anticipating that handwriting will be better because of my poor marks the last semester, it’s an interesting personal anecdote.

My advice: if you’re thinking about solely typing your notes from the lecture, have a look at the papers produced on memory retention. If you’re considering making an iPad your only device for notes, maybe have a look at also having some handwritten ones for difficult concepts.

While paper beats typing every time, I think that the jury is still out on taking handwritten notes on a tablet.

- Mollie


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