Pros and Cons of Typed, Digitally Handwritten, and Paper Notes

An important process in studying and learning is note-taking. Almost every student does it, and it is a practical requirement to pass a class. With the large amounts of information presented in each course, note-taking helps in encoding the information and thus makes it easier to remember. It also produces study materials to refer to later for exams and projects. Since technology is much more advanced now than it was even 10 years ago, when taking notes on paper was the most popular method, there are options such as typing notes on a computer, and even writing them on tablets (like paper, but digital). What are the differences between these modalities—typed (computer), digitally handwritten (tablet), or paper?


Typed (Computer)

Typing is a fast and easy way to take the information presented in lectures and textbooks and consolidate them for reference later. But, due to its fast nature, this method leads to the least amount of information retained and will require you to study more later.

Pros Cons
Organization is customizable Some editing capabilities
Easy to share Can be expensive
Typing is fastest Low retention
Import lecture slides Has battery life
Backups

Pros

Organization is customizable. Limitless folders can be created almost instantly so sorting is as easy as ever. Tags can be applied to files for easy access, sorting, and searching. Each file has a name so it is clear what that file is; and those names can always be changed. Files can easily be moved to different areas on the computer. Since the files are digital, there is no physical footprint and the more files or folders you create does not take up more physical space (unlike more notebooks or papers). All these reasons make the computer the device with the best organization options that are fast and easy.

Easy to share. Rather than copying or scanning notes, computers have simple share screens to instantly share with anyone. People can collaborate on the same document like in Google Docs, or files can be emailed and/or texted quickly. When sharing notes, instead of handing-off the page like you would with paper, you still retain the original notes.

Typing is fastest. Writing can be time-consuming, especially in a fast lecture. Typing takes the least amount of time so more information can be put on the page and reviewed later.

Import lecture slides. If someone does not want to type out all the information a professor teaches, importing lecture slides is very easy and can be stored on the device.

Backups. Although it is less likely anything bad will happen to a computer since it is more valuable than a notebook, computers can backup manually (or automatically) so that your notes are safe. Losing notes can be costly when an exam is approaching and/or you spent a lot of time working on them, by having the ability to backup the notes it is one less thing to worry about.

Cons

Some editing capabilities. Although you can change the color and highlight text, or add elements such as photos and tables, text is restricted to being within headers and organized in paragraphs. Although text boxes are sometimes an option, they do not provide as much placement customization as simply writing the words.

Can be expensive. Computers can range from $150 to thousands. So, unless you are willing to spend the money on that, notebooks are the cheaper alternative costing only a few dollars. Although, it is likely you already have a computer since you are accessing this post and most universities require you to access the internet for assignments, enrolling in classes, etc.

Low retention. Typing has been shown to yield the least retention of the three methods described here. Since it is a faster method and students tend to passively listen and type everything they hear, they do not have to go through the process of picking out the important content for transcription like they would with handwriting since it is slower.

Has battery life. Computers run out of power and die. For it to be reliable, you must remember to charge it regularly, or you may go to class with a computer that dies 5 minutes in.


Digitally Handwritten (Tablet)

The tablet (and other devices that allow digital handwriting) is a happy medium that has both benefits of the computer and those of paper notes. Sharing and customization is easy and handwriting yields greater retention while size makes tablets as portable as notebooks. Some note-taking apps for tablets such as the iPad include GoodNotes and Notability.

Pros Cons
Portable (One device for all subjects) Writing on glass
Simple and extensive editing capabilities Expensive
Organization is customizable Writing can be time consuming
Easy to share Have battery life
High retention
Import lecture slides
Backups

Pros

Portable. Not only is a tablet the size of a notebook (or smaller), but it also takes the place of all of them. All your subjects can be stored on the single device (ex. five courses may be five notebooks but can instead be all on one device).

Simple and extensive editing capabilities. Handwriting allows you to write anywhere on a sheet and not be restricted by margins or spacing and there are a variety of pen sizes and colors to use. Photos and other elements can be placed anywhere on a page and text wrapping is not a concern. If you want your handwriting to be turned into text, many apps offer that ability.

Organization is customizable. Tablets, and other such devices, offer the same organization options (and sometimes more) as computers (described above).

Easy to share. Sharing is just as easy as with computers (described above).

High retention. Since you are handwriting the notes on the device, there is higher retention and mental processing of the information. This yield to better acquisition of the information and less need for studying later.

Import lecture slides. Storing lecture slides is just as easy and the same as with computers (described above).

Backups. All your notes can be stored on the device or in the cloud. Same as computers (described above).

Cons

Writing on glass. Glass is a frictionless surface that is very different from paper, so writing on a tablet may be strange and uncomfortable at first. With time you would probably become more accustomed, and there are always solutions such as the Paperlike iPad screen protector that changes the surface of the glass so it is more like paper.

Expensive. Tablets cost a lot of money and there are additional costs such as buying the electronic pencil or stylus, a screen protector, and/or a case. These devices are big investments, and while the payoff is great it may be more than some are willing to pay.

Writing can be time consuming. Writing takes longer and requires you to abbreviate words or come back to later to complete. This may be a drawback for you if you do not have much time.

Have battery life. Like the computer, tablets run out of power and die. You must be vigilant about battery power and charge frequently, so it does not die when you need it most.


Paper Notes

The standard modality that college students have used for centuries. Paper notes are the most accessible way to take notes. Cheaper than the other two methods, many people utilize paper notes to record information for courses.

Pros Cons
Natural feel Easiest to lose and destroy
Portable No backups
Flexible Difficult to correct mistakes and customize
Cheap Archiving can be difficult
Highest retention Writing can be time consuming
No distractions

Pros

Natural feel. Paper is what we all write on. Many aspects of our lives include writing by hand on paper.

Portable. Notebooks are easy to carry and transport. Just so long as there are not too many.

Flexible. There are no restrictions. A page is very flexible in that you can write anywhere on it.

Cheap. Unlike the other options, notebooks can cost only a few dollars or less and pencils/pens are very cheap as well. This is a great option if you do not want to break the bank.

Highest retention. Since you must be very aware of what content you are writing down as well as that erasing is not as easy on say a tablet, there is a higher retention of the materials compared to the other modalities discussed.

No distractions. Computers and tablets have notifications and if someone texts you or you get emails on the device, or your favorite game sends an enticing notification to try and get you to play again can cause distractions. This disrupts your flow of learning and breaks your focus. Do Not Disturb is an option, but for a truly distraction free experience, paper is the best option.

Cons

Easiest to lose and destroy. Notebooks are easy to destroy by tearing a page or erasing too much, water damage, your dog ate it, etc. They can also be easy to lose and notebooks are often misplaced.

No backups. Unless you scan it or copy the notes, there are no backups, and you have one copy that if destroyed is gone forever. Also, scanning and copying notes takes more of your valuable time that you could use to study the material. This is the riskiest option overall in terms of note safety.

Difficult to correct mistakes and customize. Erasing can be somewhat challenging if you have a lot to erase as some of the writing can remain on the page (just faded) or you might rip the whole page with the force of the eraser. Also, to use many colors or highlight, you must buy additional pens and highlighters. These items are almost never erasable when put on a page as well. These reasons make customization and corrections very difficult.

Archiving can be difficult. Instead of all your notes stored in one device, it is likely if they are paper that your notes are in several notebooks. Notebooks can accumulate greatly over time resulting in a bunch of old notes that you are not sure if will use again and takes up a lot of space. Also, since they are not digital, specific notes about a specific concept can be very challenging to find since notes are not named, tagged, or able to be searched.

Writing can be time consuming. Writing takes longer than typing. (This is described above.)


While all three modalities and methods have their own benefits and drawbacks, it is up to you to decide what you value and prioritize to determine which is best for you. Are you okay with spending a bit more money for a tablet or laptop to take notes? Do you like the feel of natural paper? Do you value the speediness typing offers?

For me, I take notes on my iPad with an Apple Pencil and a Paperlike screen protector. The app I use is GoodNotes. I enjoy the customization, organization, and backup options provided with it being digital. But I also value the benefits writing offers and increased retention as a result of it.

Written by Cole Navin


*This is an opinion post. While the topics described here are mostly based on research, please keep in mind not to assume all of the information described above is factual.

Some sources used: https://theproductiveengineer.net/taking-notes-ipad-vs-paper/, https://studybreaks.com/college/digital-notes-versus-paper/.

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