Thao Do

Are Laptop Notes Muddling Your Memory?

In a world dominated by technology, it’s easy to forget that our brains might interact with a screen differently than a sheet of paper. It was exactly that topic that drove junior Thao Do’s research this summer as part of the Excel! Research Scholars Program.

“I thought back to a recent classroom experience,” Do said. “I was taking notes in class with a laptop, and I realized I did not pay attention to a single word (the professor) had said at all. I was just typing down literally everything he said. By the time I started reading the notes, I had no idea what I had written.”

Do, mentored by Psychology Department professor Greg Robinson-Riegler, examined whether students remember information better when taking notes on a laptop or by hand, and whether technology habits and memory capacity affected either note-taking technique.

Replicating and tweaking

Do, a neuroscience major, said she had been looking for a chance to do research, so when she found the Excel! Research Scholars Program she thought it was a “great opportunity.” The program prepares undergraduates who are first-generation college students, military veterans or are of an underrepresented race for graduate school. A key portion of that is research alongside a mentor.

Do linked up with Robinson-Riegler, who specializes in memory and cognitive processes. After they discussed Do’s interests, Robinson-Riegler recommended she look at a recent study that said students engaged with handwritten notes more than laptop-taken notes, leading them to recall more information. They decided to replicate that study and add in a few variables.

“There’s been a real emphasis in the field recently on replicating findings,” Robinson-Riegler said. “People find it once, but it’s nice if two, three or four labs replicate it and show that’s a real thing.”

To replicate the study, Do individually tested 19 people. Given either a laptop or told to take notes by hand, each participant watched one of two TED videos and then took a test that included multiple choice questions, true/false, fill in the blank and a final section to include anything else remembered.

In addition, Do tested two other variables: working memory and technology habits. (Working memory is a person’s ability to hold something in his or her mind.) Do theorized that individuals with stronger working memory would perform better whether taking notes by hand or by laptop, and would do especially better in the handwritten notes group.

To test working memory, participants took a test, with multiple trials that gave them simple math problems. They were shown words. At the end of each trial, they were asked to recall the words and their presented order. Higher scores equaled a stronger working memory.

For technology habits, Do theorized that individuals who are accustomed to using technology more frequently in their day-to-day lives might have shorter attention spans and, hence, wouldn’t do as well when recalling notes. To score technology habits, each participant in Do’s study took a survey answering questions such as “How often do you check for text messages on a cellphone?” or “How often do you watch movies on a computer?”

The results of Do’s research did not correlate with the original study; she did not find a difference in the effectiveness between handwritten or laptop-taken notes. Those with stronger working memory did better regardless of how they were taking notes, but, again, there was no significant difference between handwritten or laptop-taken notes. Finally, she didn’t find that technology usage affected memory capacity.

‘Grooving your brain’

Although Do presented her research as part of Excel! at the end of the summer, she and Robinson-Riegler already are planning the next part of the experiment. They want to continue to finesse the experiment to make sure their results are reliable.

“I’m always a little disappointed when findings don’t turn out, but the fact that we didn’t find the difference doesn’t mean it was a failure. It could mean that there really isn’t that big of a difference in the condition,” Robinson-Riegler said. “There’s a lot of things that could have watered down or eliminated the effect. We’re continuing to run it.”

First, Do and Robinson-Riegler just want more participants. Do also has given a lot of thought to the environment that her subjects are being tested in. She noted that the original study tested several participants at once, which she thinks could give a more classroom-like feel with the potential for higher distractions. Additionally, laptops can offer other distractions, which she thinks might have been negated in her study by explicit instructions on how to take notes.

Whatever the results of the initial run of the study, Robinson-Riegler said figuring out the next step in research is one of the most vital aspects of learning.

“I always tell this to students: ‘If you don’t find what you expected or the findings are kind of odd or difficult to explain, really the whole thing is about process. You learned a lot putting it together, working yourself through what you have to do to run it (and) actually running it. Every single bit of the research process is a valuable exercise in thinking,’” Robinson-Riegler said. “It’s kind of just grooving your brain in that way (of thinking). … Figuring out the next question to ask (is) what's going to move you forward.”

Robinson-Riegler said he hopes to set this project up as a continuing one in the department with the potential to bring more students on to work alongside Do.

As for Do, this first taste of research has made her want more.

“I hope to do more neuroscience-like research as well, related to medical or health. Throughout this program, it makes you think a lot about where you want to be and make your short-term goals, as well as your long-term goals,” Do said.