How do you take notes?
In an experiment by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer (two academics with a really interesting repertoire of studies - we'll see them crop up in later ideas no doubt), university students were asked to watch a TED talk from outside their core knowledge area, and told they would be quizzed afterwards. Some of the students were provided with laptops, others with a pen and notepad. They were asked to make whatever notes they would usually make in preparation for a test on the topic. Immediately following the TED talk they were given “distractor tests” (exercises that effectively “wipe” working memory), and then 30 minutes later they were asked a series of questions on what they had learned.
Two types of questions were asked:
Whilst there was no significant difference between groups on factual recall questions, those who took notes by hand performed significantly better on conceptual-application questions than those who took notes on a laptop.
This is in spite of those taking notes on a laptop writing more words overall. What’s more, when recall and application was tested one week later, even with the opportunity to review notes prior to the test, those with hand written notes still performed better.
What does this mean?
If you need to take notes, and you are looking to develop a deeper understanding of the situation, try ditching the laptop and picking up that notebook.
Why might this be the case?
There are two types of note taking:
When you make notes on a laptop you can process a greater number of words (because you can type faster than you can write longhand), however that speed comes at a price: it’s difficult not to try to copy everything that is said verbatim. This verbatim copying is linked to shallower cognitive processing.
When you make notes by hand, you won’t be able to write down everything that is said, so you are forced to paraphrase and summarise on the fly. To do this, information has to be more deeply processed which in turn leads to greater comprehension.
What’s more, when notes are reviewed again later, your own words serve as mental cues that recreate the thought processes and conclusions you came to at the time of writing.
How can you use it?
The benefit of taking notes during any meeting is relatively uncontroversial - notes serve as “external storage” that can be reviewed later. If you are making notes on a laptop, these can be stored, distributed and searched more easily than handwritten notes.
However, how notes are “encoded” affects how well they are understood.
Encoding notes in a generative way enables deeper cognitive processing, so aim to paraphrase and summarise. It is easier for humans to do this when taking notes by hand, because the temptation to copy verbatim when typing is too strong. Another interesting output of the research is that even when subjects were explicitly told not to copy what was being said verbatim, those who typed their notes still had significantly more verbatim overlap than those who wrote by hand.
Here's my advice:
If the goal of a discussion is not to understand but to record what was said, then feel free to type away. If however your aim is to understand the situation, to comprehend and reach conclusions, then take notes by hand. Aim to paraphrase and summarise as much as possible. This holds true for all types of meetings and discussions - whether they are with your team, potential new hires, customers, suppliers or investors.
Type your notes up afterwards if needed, so they can be distributed and searched for more easily.
And when you're inevitably sitting in a meeting surrounded by the pitter patter of people typing, ask yourself - are they comprehending or just recording? (tweet this!)
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