Don't take your laptop

We’ve all done it -- headed off to a conference, with laptop in tow for taking notes and recording the wealth of information we gain from the conference. Yet we end up doing work, or Twitter or…simply not taking notes and learning like we had planned.

Even if you’re better than me (which I’m pretty sure you are) and you do actually take notes, I have a question for you.

Is the end goal to take a bunch of notes, or to gain a deeper understanding of the topics discussed at the conference?

I’m going to assume that the end goal of any session you’re in is deeper understanding of both the facts and the concepts being presented, and not the copious transcription of notes.

Digital vs. Analog

There is no doubt I type faster than I write. My general typing speed is 100 wpm and I have no idea what my general handwriting speed is but I do know that if I want to be able to read my writing later, I need to be deliberate with my handwriting.

I also know that my hand gets sore if I write for too long so I have to take breaks to rest my hand.

When I’m taking notes with my laptop or tablet I get more content down on the page. Which is a good thing. Studies have shown that the more notes students take in school, the better their test performance [1]. It seems safe to assume note-taking will benefit adult learners -- and students of business -- as well.

But is the amount of notes you take the primary factor in your recall of information? Or does the medium you use to record the notes matter?

In a study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer the medium of note-taking was put to the test. The format of their experiments was basically the same: Randomly assign students to paper or computer and get them to listen to a lecture while taking notes with their standard note-taking strategy. After the lecture, students were tested on their factual recall (like what year did XX happen), as well as their conceptual learning (how do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to social equality?).

Their findings indicated students who took notes via paper did better on the tests than students who recorded notes on their computer. It seems the computer note takers were more likely to go on autopilot and focus more on a transcription of the notes, while the paper note takers had to spend time thinking about which were the most important bits of information to write down, and thus had better recall.

In another experiment, Mueller and Oppenheimer let the students take their notes home and study them for a week, then take a test on the material. Even though the computer note takers had more notes and more verbatim transcription, the paper note takers did significantly better on the test a week later.

Even when they asked the computer note takers to not transcribe the material verbatim, they simply failed to do so and still transcribed the material, thus not improving their scores on the tests.

Review is even more important

We can agree that we need to take the right type of notes and synthesize the information that we are presented with -- rather than simply copying verbatim from a conference session -- but did you know that reviewing your notes is even more important?

In fact, if you skip a class and simply review the notes of someone who attended class, you’re going to do better on a test than the person that made it to the class and took notes but didn’t review [2].

Your learning doesn’t stop when a session ends, even if you've taken good notes. You need to schedule some time to sit down and review your notes. Pull out the main points that you need to follow up on and dig a bit deeper.

But the hallway

I know that for many of us the ‘hallway track’ seems to be the best option. We get to make new connections for our businesses and get to pick the brain of smart people in our industry.

I’ve found the exact same thing, and the truth is that in all the WordCamps I’ve been to in the last 2 years there have only been 1 or 2 sessions that really offered interesting material for me as a developer.

Still, pick a session or two and take good notes during them. Review the notes the week after, even take the time to blog about it so you can synthesize the material into your own words. I know that my understanding of a topic increases immensely when I take the time to write about it and share my work.


  1. Note taking effectiveness in the modern classroom  ↩
  2. Research on Student Notetaking: Implications for Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors  ↩

photo credit: nathanfrankephotography cc