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It's the beginning of a new semester! We have some psychological tips that can help you to take better notes.

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Picture this: It's the beginning of a new semester, and you've just walked into class and opened your laptop… only to have your teacher explain that computers won't be allowed. But hey, it's okay!

Because they then try to explain that they're doing you a favor! After all, they say, taking notes by hand is better for you. But that just seems… weird.

I mean, it's pretty easy to take notes on a keyboard, so why would writing and wiggling your hand like this somehow be better for your memory than typing? Well, maybe surprisingly, your teachers aren't just making this stuff up. There is evidence that writing notes by hand might be better for test performance… but only in certain situations.

Here's what you should know. If you've got one of those teachers that really believes you should keep your computer in your bag, they have a reason for it. Because some studies do support this — like one published in Psychological Science in 2014.

In one of its experiments, volunteers took notes while watching TED talks, either on paper or with a computer. Then, about half an hour later, they took a test on things in the study material. Some of them were basic facts, like, “How many years ago did the Indus civilization exist?" Others were more conceptual questions that involved some thinking — like, "What is significant about the Indus scripts found in Mesopotamia?" No matter how they took notes, everyone did just about equally well on the basic facts.

But those who took notes by hand seemed to be better at answering the conceptual questions. The researchers suggest this happened because the typing group took more notes and copied down a lot of what was said in verbatim. That may mean they didn't think as hard about what they were learning.

Meanwhile, those who wrote by hand paraphrased more and likely had to think more intentionally about what to write, so they may have engaged with the material more deeply. Now, if you just look at this experiment, you might walk away with some sweeping conclusions about how to take notes. But it's important to remember that there's more to learning than just writing things down.

How you study, if you study, and how long you have until the test are all important parts of that process. And when you start to include those kinds of variables in your research… that's where things get complicated. Like, take another experiment from in that paper.

In it, the researchers used a new group of participants. Again, some took notes on a computer, and others took notes by hand. But this time, those participants had to wait a week to be tested instead of half an hour.

And when they returned for their test, some people were allowed to study their notes, while others weren't. This experiment was slightly more reflective of real life, and maybe unsurprisingly, the results were a bit different, too. In the group that didn't study, the researchers found no significant difference in test scores between participants who took handwritten and typed notes.

But in the group that did study, those who took notes by hand still seemed to get higher scores. This seems to suggest that studying is important, but how you take notes is still a big factor, too. Except… that doesn't mean that handwritten notes are always the best.

As it turns out, there's one more variable you should know about to really get the full picture. This variable shows up in a paper published in 2012, where note-taking methods were tested over three separate experiments. In every experiment, some participants were told to take organized, paraphrased notes, and others were told to transcribe as much as possible.

Then, a second condition was added. In the first experiment, some people took notes by hand, and others used a computer. In the second, everyone took notes on a computer, but some people were tested immediately, while others waited a day.

And in the third, everyone used a computer again, but some people got to review their notes at the end of the lecture, and others didn't. Then, everyone was tested a day later. Based on these experiments, you might think that those who took handwritten notes or those who took paraphrased notes did the best.

But that isn't what the scientists always saw. Instead, transcribing everything on a computer generally seemed to lead to better scores on free recall tests. Admittedly, this wasn't true for all cases.

Like, if participants had to wait a day to be tested and weren't allowed to review their notes, those who typed organized notes did better than those who typed things more verbatim. But for the most part, transcribing things seemed to be the way to go in this study. So, what's the deal?

Well, that 2014 paper isn't necessarily wrong. This 2012 study just looked at one more very important variable: the participants' working memory skills. Besides doing all this note-taking stuff, these participants also took a working memory test to measure things like how many numbers they could keep in their heads for a few minutes.

And this was significant. The researchers found that, over all three experiments, if participants were told to organize their notes and paraphrase, their working memory scores tended to predict their test scores. In other words, those with higher working memory scores tended to test better than those with lower scores.

But — and here's the kicker — that wasn't true if participants were told to transcribe everything. In that case, working memory didn't seem to matter. This likely happened because good paraphrasing requires you to hold information in your head while you jot it down.

And if you just aren't good at that, your notes might not be as useful. Transcribing sort of levels the playing field, which explains why it seemed to be the best method in most of these specific study conditions. So... where does this leave you?

Well, this research suggests that there isn't one best general note-taking strategy. Instead, things seem to depend on the situation. If you know you won't have a chance to study before your test, it might be a good idea to do some deep thinking while you take notes.

And these studies show that taking notes by hand might help you do that, since you probably won't copy as much verbatim. But if it's going to be a bit, and you know you're going to get a chance to study your notes, taking a lot of detailed notes might be helpful — which a computer can help with. This seems to be especially true if you have a hard time, say, keeping a phone number in your head for a few minutes.

At the end of the day, though, your notes won't be the only things that affect your exam performance. If these experiments show anything, it's that how you study is also really important, especially if there's a long delay between when you learn something and when you're formally tested on it. Still, especially if you've got an exam coming up soon, a little extra psychology help can't hurt.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and special thanks to our patrons on Patreon! We started this channel because you wanted to learn more about the human mind and brain, and we couldn't keep it going without you. If you want to learn more about becoming a patron, you can head over to [ ♪OUTRO ].