BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Writing notes on paper or typing on a laptop: Which is better?

Author: Mohammad Ali

In a time when technology is advancing faster than ever and encompasses almost all aspects of life, the way we usually do things, especially as students, is constantly changing. It's interesting to ponder how education has evolved over the last few centuries and even more after the COVID-19 pandemic. We went from having classes in person to having entire courses available online, many of which can be attended by people across the globe. Currently, a prominent debate amongst students is whether to use laptops or the traditional pen and paper when it comes to taking notes. While many students prefer to use their laptops or tablets to compose notes, others hold strong with pen and paper. But which method is the best?

The organizational capacities are among the most alluring benefits of using laptops/iPads. We can store and access countless files and documents and have them organized in whatever manner we prefer. In addition, notes on laptops also allows for easier searches when looking for specific details that would otherwise be difficult to search for in traditional notebooks. Lastly, writing your notes online allows for more peer collaboration and prevents you from losing all your notes (Thank you Cloud!).  Can you imagine losing your notebook with all your notes the week before an exam? However, there are significant drawbacks, the most prominent being that it is much easier to be distracted when using laptops. With one click, you can access any social media platform, YouTube or Netflix, and do anything but study.

Regarding the traditional pen and paper, there are some enticing attractions when using the OG note-taking method. The most being the experience of writing on paper using a pencil. Something about the tactile experience of writing your own notes and if you have good handwriting, being proud of your handwriting can be a significant incentive to why you prefer writing your notes. In addition, students may like having different sets of pens and highlighters, allowing them to experience a more artistic side of writing notes, making the overall experience more enjoyable. However, one aspect of "note" is that the scientific literature supports the claim that writing your notes is better for learning and memory than typing on a laptop. A recent study that compared memorizing specific appointments between those who wrote the appointments down on paper, laptop, and their phones found that those who wrote down the appointments on paper were better able to recall those appointments (Umejima et al., 2021). It is possible that writing your notes by hand simply activates more regions of the brain that help with memorizing information for extended periods and more accurately. It also provides more spatial information, which may offer more retrieval cues to recall it. However, some of the issues with paper notes are difficulty in organizing different notes, searching, and collaborating with peers.

Ultimately, what method to use is up to you and requires trial and error to determine what is best. While research suggests that writing notes by hand is the superior method, it may be possible that humans haven't been using our laptops long enough to effectively activate the same brain regions done by traditional handwriting. However, the best method is the method that works best for you! Suppose organization is crucial and you're paranoid about losing your notes. In that case, it may be better to use your laptop. However, handwriting is for you if you prefer to employ the most "scientific" approach to memorize your notes.

Here's one final thought I would like to leave with you: what's considered the best way of doing things can change. Imagine if the very first form of written communication was cave paintings, perhaps depicting hunting techniques for food. Just like we transitioned from handwriting to using laptops, it's entirely possible that in the future, things could change again.


Umejima K, Ibaraki T, Yamazaki T, Sakai KL. Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval. Front Behav Neurosci. 2021 Mar 19;15:634158. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158. PMID: 33815075; PMCID: PMC8017158.