Do students learn less when they are taking notes on a laptop than they learn when they take notes in a lecture class by handwriting? Apparently, according to this one much-quoted popular report on an actual study, the answer is yes. ( I'll add something later, in the Comments section, about the study itself, which apparently does not say some of what the media says), but the point is why do people keep asking this question, the wrong question: handwriting versus laptops in a lecture hall. Okay, so if that is your binary, maybe you should have them take notes. And you should think about your strategies for note taking (whether by hand or by laptop). But even better is to rethink the lecture hall as the best way to learn. Except in formal education, we don't really think of attending a lecture as the best way of retaining knowledge. It's great for entertainment, insight, and inspiration, if delivered by the right person. But if you really want to master something, to be able to apply it in your life, to use it to accomplish something important, very few people would instinctively turn to the lecture hall.
You wouldn't learn to play golf by attending a lecture about how to play golf. Of course. But there are other things that are important to your life that you have to just memorize and lectures don't work there either: You would not prepare for the written portion of your driver's test from a lecture. You would not prepare for a written citizenship test by attending a lecture about citizenship. The Kaplan people don't charge $$$ to help you prep for standardized college entrance tests by lecturing at you--and if they did, you would demand your money back.
Think about that. You know how you learn important things that you need in your daily life and it isn't from a lecture. If you had to take a test and you needed to retain content for a test that really mattered in your life, you would not choose to do it by sitting in someone's lecture about the content and taking notes (not notes by laptop, not notes by longhand). You would read the booklet or the website, you might take practice tests, you would see what you got right and what you got wrong, you would retake the practice tests, and on and on.
Now, if you teach at a university where you have hundreds of students in a class, you might think you have to lecture. Perhaps. But there are low cost ways of engaging students even in a large lecture hall. There's been a lot of talk about the "flipped classroom," where students watch a video of a lecture, read the material, and then come in and, instead of a lecture, there's a Socratic form of the dialogic question and answer session. Law schools have operated that way for decades.
But even better is the method called Think-Pair-Share. It's done low cost, with index cards, and you can read about it in detail here, "Single Best Way to Transform Classrooms of Any Size." I learned this method from a second-grade teacher. At any point in a class (in school or I do it in every lecture I give to a general audience too), you have students write the answer to a question you pose on an index card. I typically have them write three things. 90 seconds. Tops. Quick is best. Then I have them turn to another person, compare their six things, and together decide on the one best answer they want to present ("share") with the group as a whole where, of course, there will be other answers also arrived at through a similar dialogic process. When they share their answer with the larger group, they hear it in a new way, in a context of other answers. Sometimes we'll even have a "redo" after the general presentation, starting with three things, a discussion with one other partner, and then sharing--rarely do we hear the same things on the redo. This is brilliant method and structure for introverts, because somehow writing down on a card first makes it less painful to then discuss it with someone else and offer an idea out of seemingly nowhere. It tames that too-extroverted student who usually dominates class time. It makes for a far more diverse set of ideas and a richer experience.
Plus, unlike the binary of handwriting down a lecture versus typing down lecture notes, which persists with the same model of learning that we know is least effective for retention, applicability, and improvement, this turns content into process, dialogue, requires active engagement. And it is practical. One prof in the comment section on the blog cited above has her students sign their cards and turn them in: attendance, pop quiz, AND great learning exercise all at once.
Cheap, efficient, smart. And not just for second grade teachers. The medical school versionis called "See one. Do one. Teach one." I like to add an online component that extends the practice to "Share one." If you are doing a pedagogical experiment that works, tell everyone about it.
That's why I pass on the wisdom of the unnamed second grade teacher who taught me Think-Pair-Share during a lecture I was giving several years ago. I've never gone back. Handwriting versus laptop in a lecture? What a terrible trivializing of the learning process? If we would not, on our own, master material in this way if something important in our life depended upon it, why would we do it this way in the classroom. The real aim of learning should be connection: connection with the material, with one another, with society, with crucial life issues. Engaged interaction with smart material and with others is the way to learn, to teach, to know, to master. Index cards. Think-Pair-Share.
Thank you, yet again, to that brilliant second grade teacher for telling us all that day about Think-Pair-Share. She taught me a lesson I've never forgotten (and I didn't even take notes, not with a laptop or handwriting).