Ask LH: Is A Notepad Or A Laptop Better For Students?

Ask LH: Is A Notepad Or A Laptop Better For Students?

Hi Lifehacker. I will be finishing the HSC soon and starting university next year. For lectures I’m not sure if I should bring an exercise book or my laptop? What is the most common among university students? Thanks, Studious

Notepad picture from Shutterstock

Dear Studious,

When it comes to study and note-taking, we believe pen and paper should never be completely abandoned. Indeed, there are some studies that claim you actually learn more effectively this way.

Using your hand to form and connect letters actively engages your brain in the process of writing. By contrast, typing is a detached mechanism — you’re basically just pressing identical-looking keys to form words. This is something you can do while half asleep: your mind isn’t pushed in the same way.

Another advantage of handwriting is that your equipment is more reliable. Unlike a laptop or tablet, a notepad won’t break down or run out of batteries. (Sure, your pen may run out of ink, but it’s not difficult to quickly procure another.) It’s also less cumbersome, which is handy if you do lots of walking on campus.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to be completely archaic: these days it’s possible to merge traditional note-taking with sophisticated tech. One product worth considering is the Evernote Moleskine notebook. This allows your handwritten pages to be auto-tagged, searched and backed up in the cloud as Evernote notes — effectively giving you the best of both worlds.

The below video explains how the process works:

There are various other ways to update the pen to the digital era: examples include OneNote’s handwriting recognition software, portable document scanners, LiveScribe smart pens and a stylus-equipped tablet. You can read up on all these methods and more via our digital handwriting guide.

With all that said, every individual is different. If you’re slow at note-taking, suffer from hand cramps easily or have barely legible handwriting, a laptop or keyboard-equipped tablet might be a better way to go. You can find some suggestions for decent student laptops in this Ask LH article.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I finished a masters last year and was a big fan of using google docs for taking notes, you never lose a keystroke, can access your notes from any device and can easily share if you are doing group work.

    I also used to use my laptop/tablet to log into the library website during class to download relevant articles or reserve loans on books that the lecturer mentioned.

    Pen and paper is a great tool for doing exercises out of class and committing things to memory, but if you are anything like me then your typing is much faster and more reliably legible than your handwriting, so it was a no-brainer for me to use a laptop when taking notes in class.

  • I would suggest that it actually depends on your lecturer and subject more than the individual preference. If your lecturer simply goes through a PowerPoint that’s online at the time of class then digitally typing notes will work fine if the subject doesn’t involve formulas and diagrams. If there is a chance of needing to draw a diagram or anything else that’s hard to type then a notebook is the way to go.

  • My advice? Don’t use a laptop for taking notes.
    It can work, but it serves as a distraction-trigger far too often. I speak from personal experience, and from sitting up the back of lecture theatres watching all the students with laptops spend the whole lecture playing games and checking Facebook.
    A good approach is to download and print the lecture slides (most lecturers will upload them to your uni’s online system in advance) 4 or 6 to a page, then bring them and take notes on the printout. That way you have all of the diagrams and other slide content already at hand, so you can focus on noting down the important stuff the lecturer is saying that isn’t on the slides.
    If you have terrible handwriting (like me), or hate managing lots of paper notes (also like me), an iPad or other tablet can be a good option. Because they typically have a full screen UI paradigm, there are fewer distraction triggers, and you can use a stylus to write notes on the slide PDFs. Also, I’ve found that typing with a swipe-style touchscreen keyboard (like Swype or Swiftkey) is strangely engaging. Almost like handwriting in terms of keeping you engaged in the material, but without the chicken-scrawl that I usually produce.

  • Depends on the nature of the course, and how it’s delivered. There are plenty of courses where you’ll need to take notes in something other than plain text, and there are very few viable replacements to the good old pen and paper for that. For technical subjects, a lecturer or tutor will explain the content with a picture and although you can try to join the crowd that tries to take a photo of that, how many people do you think actually review that photo?

    Many lecturers will develop lecture slides and publish them on the university’s student portal before the lectures. Some will just read the slides – the only reason to attend these lectures is to catch announcements and information on what’s going to be examined. Most will offer further explanation on top of what is on the slides, which if you have printed them off, you can just jot down beside the slides; this is what most of my friends and I did. You may get the occasional lecturer who won’t publish lecture slides, or will present all their material hand-written over a projector (I had a maths lecturer that just wrote all his material on the whiteboards) – again, you can copy this on a laptop, but if it’s anything other than plain text, pen and paper may be easier for you.

  • Tablets FTW. As per the LH link RE digital handwriting, I think it’s pretty clear you need a stylus to effectively take notes using a tablet during a lecture – you need to be able to doodle a sketch or a formula or circle that critical point. ‘Finger painting’ doesn’t cut it. And you need an app that gives you a little magnified area while you’re writing to keep it all neat.

    Generic capacitive stylus’s I’ve used have been unreliable. If you plan to use a tablet, I think you need to consider choosing a device that is designed to work with a stylus. To this end I’ve been very happy with the Galaxy Note series. Even the bundled note taking apps work well enough for me to happily use this instead of pen and paper (and syncs with Evernote). Don’t need to convert it to searchable text IMHO.

  • Laptops can be a massive distraction, but a combination of both handwriting notes and then transcribing them into Google docs as revision was one of the more effective ways I found to retain information and be able to share it when necessary.

    Also Google docs is invaluable when completing any group assignment, you can all work on it in the same document at the same time. It’ll allow you to check on everyone else’s progress and ensure you’re not going in completely different directions. Plus you’ll never have to worry about losing an assignment.

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