Editorial: Paper or Silicon? | AIChE

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Editorial: Paper or Silicon?


While reading the airline magazine during a recent flight delay, I saw an ad from the Paper and Packaging Board that resonated with me. Entitled “Good notes speak volumes,” it said: “It’s not every day a meeting puts your skills directly in the spotlight. … Taking notes by hand helps you focus, retain information, organize your thoughts and even show them off, so you can make a lasting impression. When getting more out of your meeting matters, choose paper.”

The alternative — typing notes on a laptop — is quite popular. But laptops can be a major source of distraction because they invite multitasking, with new-email alerts popping up and the lure of online streaming, shopping, and gaming just a click away. (And, the keyboard clicking can be distracting to meeting attendees trying to listen and take notes by hand.)

Studies have suggested that for learning, laptop note taking is less effective than longhand, mainly because of the distraction factor. Psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer looked at whether the note-taking technique itself makes a difference. They found that even when laptops were disconnected from the internet, students who took notes by hand performed better on conceptual questions than those who used a laptop (although both groups performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts). Participants who used a laptop took significantly more notes, and overall those who took more notes performed better. However, students who took notes on a laptop tended to record the speaker’s words verbatim; laptop notes contained an average of 14.6% verbatim overlap with the lecture, whereas longhand notes averaged 8.8% overlap. And, those whose notes had less verbatim overlap with the lecture performed better — suggesting that “whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

The Paper and Packaging Board conducted a survey that explored how digital technology is affecting productivity in the workplace. Half of the office professionals surveyed said that screen overload makes them feel less productive, and 62% think that digital tools are making their teams unfocused and inefficient in meetings. Sixty percent of the respondents use paper specifically to make themselves more productive and 41% say they reach for paper over digital tools when they need to be attentive. A whopping 96% prefer to work with hard copies over digital versions of the same information.

Longhand and laptop note taking both have advantages and limitations. What works best for you will depend on several factors, and might change from one situation to the next. Itamar Shatz, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Univ. who writes the science-and-philosophy website Effectiviology, offers this advice: “Writing notes by hand is better if you need to process the material as you’re writing it, and especially if you’re expected to reach a conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding). The main issue with writing is that if you can’t write fast enough you might not be able to keep up with the speaker, which could cause you to omit critical information. Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, or if you’re planning to go over the material again later. It also has the added bonus of making the text easier to edit and search through, though the use of a computer potentially opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.”


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