Paper vs Digital: Choosing the Best Note-Taking Method for You

by Nancy Romo

A new quarter means new classes with new professors to take notes from. With Fall Quarter online, many students have started to taking notes digitally while others stay true to the good old-fashioned pen and paper. The question is, how should you take notes? And which way (if any) can help you maximize your learning?

Despite popular belief, the right answer can vary; from study habits to eye health to eco-friendliness, each method has its perks. Whether you are looking for a potentially grade-boosting change or simply want to observe different styles, identifying which method works best for you could prove to be helpful.

Let’s take a quiz to find out! For the following, take note of each ‘A' to ‘B’ response you have for each question, and tally them up at the end to find the note-taking style that may better suit your needs. Meanwhile, you could also learn of each method’s advantages along the way.

Note-Taking Quiz pt 1 - UCLA Total Wellness

Even though less information can be recorded per minute, taking notes by hand can be better for conceptual comprehension when compared to typing. One 2014 study divided university students into two groups—hand writers and digital note typers—and had them watch video lectures. Both groups did well with fact regurgitation and memorization, but hand writers scored higher—about three times higher than average—on tests with conceptual questions, such as comparing two different fields of interest or predicting hypothetical outcomes based on the info. [1] Even when both groups were allowed to review their notes, hand writers performed better.

Since note-taking by hand calls for cherry-picked notes, it forces you to make genuine connections with the content. [2] In the process, hand-writing notes also requires you to comprehend and select the most relevant information. [3] So, when it comes to content comprehension, the pen surpasses the keyboard.

Note-Taking Quiz pt 2 - UCLA Total Wellness

Simply put, it can be hard to review notes you do not understand. The pace of a professor’s lecture, the positioning of your notes, and even the pen you use are all important factors of handwriting. Computers allow you to customize legible fonts and formats that can be readily reviewed later—especially when Finals Week rolls around and you’ve barely reviewed content from Week One. With spell checking and formatting features, typing can help keep your notes in check.

Note-Taking Quiz pt 3 - UCLA Total Wellness

Technology is advancing, and so is the demand to produce it. The Environmental Paper Network concluded that producing a single sheet of paper releases 0.03 pounds of carbon gas; on the contrary, an Apple iPad only uses 3 watts of electricity per hour, the equivalent of 0.004 pounds of carbon gas. In other words, you could use an iPad for over seven hours—more than a day’s worth of lecture—before surpassing the carbon emissions of a single sheet of paper! Even compared with 100% recycled notebooks, the iPad’s emission rate still equates to four hours per notebook page. [4] When exclusively looking at the task of note-taking, the digital footprint is smaller than that of a notebook. [5]

Basically, for our environmentally-conscious readers: if you already own a device, it is good to switch to typing notes. Otherwise, stick with hand-writing notes.

Note-Taking Quiz pt 4 - UCLA Total Wellness

It is widely known that prolonged screen time can damage your vision, so the overall impact of digital note-taking depends on how much you use your device throughout the day. The American Optometric Association lists how a digital screen can be damaging to the eyes; poor lighting, glare and reflection of a screen, unrefined letters, the level of contrast between text and its background, and viewing angles are all factors of note-taking that hand writers do not have to deal with. [6] The quality of a screen’s resolution can also help or hurt your eyes, but the cause of eyestrain is mostly associated with digital screen exposure. [7] 

Reasons including health, distractible tendencies, and cost can persuade people to steer away from tech. Note-taking is not the only thing that has shifted online: classrooms, lectures, discussions, social media, papers and projects have as well. However, note-taking can be one less digital impulse as many activities now call for screen time. If using digital devices for notes, keep in mind how screen use affects eye health and overall wellness.

Note-Taking Quiz pt 5 - UCLA Total Wellness

With the Internet being a few clicks away, it is hard to deny the convenience and versatility of digital notes. You can quickly search and access terms throughout notes on most computers, and many websites set up spaces for notes that can never get lost online. Digital note-taking is undeniably useful: allowing you to screenshot, enlarge, and snapshot notes from afar to help you see. If allowed, recording the lecture allows you to catch parts you may have missed. Note-taking apps can also give you more organizational options, since you have extensive Web storage and can never run out of pages online. [8] Lastly, you can color, highlight, and underline without investing in real ink. For those reasons, the flexibility of digital note-taking prevails.

Note-Taking Quiz pt 6 - UCLA Total Wellness

Classrooms themselves have shifted; most (if not all) of class content is online on CCLE or available as outside digital media. Digital devices can interact with media more directly than notebooks: iPads can take and edit pictures (of diagrams, photos, etc.), and certain applications allow you to annotate PDFs directly. Regarding accessibility, you may prefer to have your notes correlate to your classrooms’ platform. 

Note-Taking Quiz pt 7 - UCLA Total Wellness

Professors and instructors have varied teaching approaches. Some professors prefer a flipped classroom where students teach themselves material before lecture, and lecture time is meant for reinforcement or commentary of the learned material. The flipped classroom approach is different from the lecture-dependent, traditional style, and can call for a shift in note-taking. To determine the better note-taking strategy, live lectures caters to notes taken on computers, and flipped classrooms may benefit from hand-taken notes. In terms of note-taking, two phrases define note-taking: encoding and external storage. 

Encoding refers to learning material first hand. Likewise, for flipped classrooms, one is expected to know the class material beforehand. When hand writing, you can mentally execute learned information better. [1] Since you are practically “teaching yourself,” it may be better to grasp the material physically at first. 

External storage, when note-taking, refers to information that is stored and reviewed. 

Similar to the accessibility arguments made before, taking digital notes allows you to refer to the professor's lecture better, and review the information for future recall. Contributors of the Journal of Education Research suggest that reviewing detailed instructors notes showed superior external-storage. [9] This means that as long as you review taken notes, your ability to recall information is higher. So as long as you have the live notes you need, the ability to refer back to them—especially if the lecture is not recorded—can benefit you. 

Bottom Line

If you answered “A” more often, then digital note-taking may be more suitable for you! On the one hand, digital note-taking is efficient; it is faster, neater, and more accessible in the long run. On the other hand, If you answered “B” more often, you might try hand-writing notes whose effects on muscle memory, physical interaction, and cost can benefit the average student. However, it all depends on your schedule and preference, so experiment with different note-taking techniques and discover what works best for you!


  1. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.” (2014).

  2. “Note-taking functions and techniques.” J. Educ. Psychol. (2016).

  3. “Cognitive effort during note taking.” (2004).

  4. “Green Your Notes!” (2011).

  5. “Should I Ditch My Spiral?” (2017).

  6. “Computer Vision Syndrome.” (2019).

  7. “Avoid Eyestrain With Your Laptop.” (n.d.).

  8. “5 Advantages of Taking Digital Handwritten Notes.” (2015).

  9. “Encoding and External-Storage Effects of Personal Lecture Notes, Skeletal Notes, and Detailed Notes for Field-Independent and Field-Dependent Learners.” J. Educ. Res. (1988).

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