Source of the following article Persuasive Litigator.

By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm: 

Handwriting 2

At a time when we are surrounded by keyboards and tablets, the act of handwriting notes with actual pen and paper can seem like an anachronism. Even the writing-intensive field of law is moving away from handwriting, at least as measured by the newer generations of lawyers. For example, I frequently give talks in law schools and as I speak, I’m usually looking out into a sea of opened laptops as the students listen and type…or maybe just type. There are some advantages to the laptop as a note-taking device, of course. The material can be organized and edited, the results are more readable and sharable, and the any reference material that is either saved or available online can be called up on the fly. But when it comes to processing and understanding the material, is laptop note-taking better or worse? The research seems to suggest, “It’s worse.” If you want to absorb and retain concepts over the long-term, it is better to take your notes the old-fashioned way, by hand.

Researchers (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014) asked college student participants to watch TED talks and then answer questions 30 minutes later. They were randomly assigned to use either laptops for their notes or to handwrite them. Even when the researchers prevented distraction and multitasking by the laptop users and restricted both groups to just taking notes, the group that wrote their notes longhand enjoyed an advantage. While recall of distinct facts was about the same for each group, those who took notes with paper and pen retained significantly more content when it came to conceptual information. Interestingly, it came down to the ways people used each tool. When a keyboard is at our disposal, we are more prone to transcribe, or to write word-for-word phrases that we’re hearing. When writing, however, we are more often forced to boil it down, putting it in our own words in order to be concise. That, the researchers argue, is what leads to better conceptual understanding. To further support that, they also found that students whose notes had the lowest amount of overlap with the content of the TED talk tended to do best in the conceptual recall test. As lead author Pam Mueller said, quoted in Psyblog, “Our new findings suggest that even when laptops are used as intended – and not for buying things on Amazon during class – they may still be harming academic performance.”

Beyond students, there are plenty of settings in the legal world where notes are taken: witness meetings, client meetings, mock jury research, and trial itself to name a few. Paper notes are still the rule in many of those settings, but it is changing quickly. I know many attorneys now, for example, who will begin just about any meeting by opening up a laptop. Based on what we know about learning via handwriting, though, I think there are a few implications. 

Attorneys and Trial Team, Keep Handwriting Your Notes

The research would indicate that on average, those who prefer paper notes are going to do more processing in the act of creating those notes and, as a result, will have a better conceptual understanding of whatever material on which they are taking their notes. Beyond that educational advantage, I think there are social effects. Talking to someone who is typing on a computer can be distancing. Because there is literally a screen between you and your target, extensive typing is probably best avoided when talking with clients, meeting with witnesses, or in court. 

Of course there are advantages to computer notes – they’re easier to file and retain for one. That retention advantage, though, can be captured in other ways. One practice that I’ve adapted is to file paper notes, as soon as possible after writing them, using some digital system like Evernote or Box — just use your phone to take a picture of your notes and upload them to the case file. Add a few key words and they’ll even be searchable from your phone. 

Witnesses, You Can Handwrite Some Notes Too

When preparing a witness for testimony, we tend to focus on reading (“Read your records,” “Review your deposition”) more than we emphasize any writing. But since preparation should be active, and since handwritten notes play an important role in synthesizing and remembering information, then perhaps we should be encouraging witnesses to take their own notes as a process of getting ready. 

Of course, there are some good reasons for attorneys to be wary of notes: You don’t want your witness to be creating more fodder for discovery. However, because the witness’s guided preparation is part of an attorney’s overall work product, it should be protected. Adding a short “To my lawyer” note at the top of that notes page, and making sure the witness does not actually bring those notes to trial or deposition, should help to keep the notes protected. One step I frequently take is to ask the witness to generate their own timeline, or to make a list of the main concerns they have in one column, along with bullet points on the best answers the facts allow in the other column. 

If You Do Type Notes, Remember to Distill And Not Transcribe

Of course, some will stick with their laptops. But remember the research: So far as we know, there is nothing about the laptop or the keyboard itself that causes a reduced conceptual understanding of material. Rather it is the way we tend to use the tools. When using a keyboard, we fall into the habit of transcribing, but when handwriting notes, we are forced to distill and shorten the content so as to write less. 

So if you do continue to use a keyboard, remember that the best practice is to boil it down and not just to record it word for word. 


Other Posts on Learning: 


Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 0956797614524581.

Photo credit:, used under license