On Note Taking

03.27.2006 · Posted in Business & Worklife

A USA Today article from March 21, 2006 titled “Law professor bans laptops in class, over student protest” has reignited the long-standing debate about the better method of taking notes: by hand, or using some form of technology, like laptops or tablet PC’s. A little closer to home, last fall my nephew Matt used note-taking as the primary reason in convincing his dad to buy him a laptop as he headed off to college.

As much as I love technology, I think there are some serious considerations that need to be weighed before booting up to take notes, including: the quickest path to understanding, formatting and short hand options, and what passes for acceptable distractions in a classroom or a meeting at work (not to mention the proven benefits of doodling).
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Most good speakers talk between 120 and 170 words per minute.

Courtroom stenographers make a living recording conversations using a machine called a stenotype that allows them to capture up to 300 words a minute with stunning accuracy. Stenographer’s also are 100% dedicated to recording and not expected to participate in the conversation (they’d be held in contempt if they tried).

Even accomplished typists — hammering along between 85 and 100 words a minute (test your typing speed) — are much too slow in most cases to accurately transcribe a presentation (let alone a heated debate). Of course 85-100 WPM assumes your laptop battery is charged, your buddies don’t IM you, your email pop-up doesn’t pop-up, and Microsoft Word doesn’t crash.

Handwriting, at 31 words a minute is admittedly the slowest form of pure transcription.

Winner: Stenotype Machine (or better yet, a recording of the event)


Sometimes abstract shorthand notations, symbols or drawings can supplement understanding, especially when your own independent thoughts and ideas spring to life. Mind-mapping is also an enlightening way to connect concepts and explore connections that might otherwise be missed.

Handwriting — with it’s pen and pad — allows you to do this without changing your input device or receptor medium. Drawing on a computer is impossible without the proper input devices and accompanying software. At minimum this requires switching programs and moving from a keyboard to a mouse, or a stylus. Of course these input devices and software are never going to be the same as what you’ve got at your fingertips, so often times they get scribbled on, you guessed it, a piece of paper (or napkin).

Winner: Handwriting


Have you ever sat next to someone typing notes on a laptop while someone is speaking? The consant “tappity-tappity” has to rank right up there with some of the most annoying sounds in a public place. A close second is the dull “scratch-tap-tap, scratch-tap-tap” of a stylus on a tablet PC (except the “tap-tap” is almost always done with a bit of arm flourish — making it twice as annoying).

A pen on paper is essentially silent, regardless of what you’re doing with it.

Winner: Handwriting


If you must have a transcript of a discussion, record it; you’re never going keep up using anything short of a dedicated stenographer anyway. And the words just aren’t that important, they are a tool used to make the point and it’s supporting arguments (of course, just like any tool, in the hands of a craftsman it can be turned into art).

If you ask any teacher, they’ll tell you they’d rather have comprehension, over transcription any day. The key is listening to what’s being said and having tools that aid understanding without geting in the way of the message. Tablet PC’s hold promise, but the early-adapters pushing them haven’t figured out the problems with format and distractions…yet.

Today there are no better tools to enhance understanding than a pen and paper.
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