Psychology Melbourne Blog

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Notable points about remembering notes

Edited by Jill Wright,

I've just bought one of the last Sony Vaio notebooks ever produced as a faster way to take notes at meetings and conferences using the bewitching personal database program, Evernote.

That possibly made me more than usually sensitive to a piece in Psyblog about research carried out by two psychologists who had trouble recalling notes [GROAN] taken on a notebook computer.

I think it put me in a good position to research the effects of being told that your substantial investment is a waste of money ... answer: not so good.

Pam Mueller, a psychologist at Princeton University, found that she did better when she switched back to a pen and paper. Worse, the study's co-author, Daniel Oppenheimer, reported that in the middle of taking notes on his computer he "looked up and realised that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about".

They then organised 65 college students to watch TED talks, split them into two groups - paper note-takers and digital ones - and got them to answer questions about what they’d learned, half an hour later.

Both groups could recall roughly the same number of facts, but the computer users retained significantly less conceptual information. The researchers' theory is that they had merely transcribed the talk verbatim, rather than distilling it the way handwritten notetakers tend to do.

I'd find this more convincing if it weren't for (a) [admittedly] my investment, (b) the longer-term recall factor and (c) writer's cramp.

For one thing, if you take a note in Evernote, it's going to be vastly more accessible than a paper note.

But their findings might be useful for those of us who do take notes on laptops or tablets. Rather than merely transcribing the talk, even if you're a particularly fast touch-typist, it might be more effective to summarise more.

Jessica Holsman, who has a postgraduate degree in psychology from Deakin University, offers some study tactics based on active learning. She has her own website and has also produced a YouTube channel on the topic with roughly 500,000 subscribers.

One tip is to sleep after memorising your notes, either taking a nap after you've done the memorising, or doing your memorising just before bedtime. Coincidentally, in my previous blog post on the psychology of dance and music, I touched on the research of Rasch and Born on sleep and memory. If you'd like to read more on the memory function of sleep, there is a PDF file of a review  by Susanne Diekelmann and Jan Born here.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.