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Thursday, August 15, 2019

What about a tablet?

A question for those who do not allow laptops and do not allow students to type notes in class:

What about taking notes using a stylus and tablet (iPad, Surface, etc.)? On one hand, this is writing rather than typing, so the ability/temptation to stenography is absent; it is the same means of notetaking, with fewer dead trees. On the other, I presume the benefit is that the tablet program converts the handwritten notes into typeset notes, which can be cut-and-pasted into a study outline; this eliminates the need or use for retyping of notes, which is an important point at which learning and understanding occurs.

Thoughts? Does anyone familiar with the literature know of any studies comparing writing-on-tablet with writing-on-paper or typing?

(Note: I know many readers believe that my position on laptops is wrong. That is beside the point here, so please do not bother with comments to that effect. My question begins from the premise that laptops and typing for notes are out. Now what?)

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 15, 2019 at 05:51 PM in Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink


Pedagogical research is a developing field with little consensus. If you permitted a variety of options for notetaking and encouraged students to be thoughtful in selecting which one they use, any given method would likely benefit some students' learning.

Also, many students who use laptops as an accommodation do so specifically because they cannot handwrite notes. This "solution" does nothing to help them.

Posted by: Recent grad | Aug 28, 2019 7:09:13 PM

After I wrote the OP, I reached out to the authors of the 2014 study, which was the first big paper to show better performance with pen-and-paper. They did not examine the use of tablets. The studies comparing paper with tablets are all over the place at this point.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 18, 2019 7:20:59 PM

I don't know of studies on the topic. I suppose whether to consider this will depend in part on your reasons for banning laptops in the first instance. If you are motivated primarily by wanting to eliminate the temptation to multitask, the tendency to disengage, and the potential distraction of others, then you'd have to limit this to dedicated devices rather than permitting iPads with styluses. If you are motivated primarily by the research suggesting that hand writing increases comprehension and recall, then I suppose you could proceed with either, provided the research also shows that hand writing with a stylus has the same effect. This has never come up for me. I might worry a little about adopting a policy that could disadvantage students who couldn't afford the fancy device.

Posted by: anon | Aug 16, 2019 6:56:08 PM

It looks like you might be on your way to a rule that mimics the NFL's "catch" rule - laptops are completely banned because students might access the internet or might succumb to the temptation of stenography (even though many students do neither, and some use them in class to access their digital textbook, take class notes, flag questions, and look up concepts or word definitions or historical facts that help them follow along with lecture/discussion without interrupting or remaining needlessly lost, and some depend on laptops as an accommodation). Pen and paper is perfectly fine even though students could attempt to take word-for-word dictation of what you say in class with pen and paper, by longhand or shorthand, and they can get distracted by doodling on their paper or writing notes to the person sitting next to them. Now a subsection in the rule on tablets - ok but only if the student is taking notes in a way that mimics old-fashioned pen and paper with a styles, but not, I'm guessing, by using an attachable keyboard. What about a touchscreen keyboard on a tablet - would it be permissible to take notes that way?

A laptop ban and tablets-and-keyboard ban, but tablets-with-stylus exception, doesn't seem worth the candle.

Universal design for learning encourages a learning environment that accommodates diverse abilities and preferences, so that would favor you permitting students to use tablets with a stylus to take notes in your classes (with, if you like, internet bans or consequences if the device use poses a distraction in class).

I'm not familiar with studies comparing pen and paper notetaking with stylus on a tablet notetaking.

Posted by: Kevin Lapp | Aug 16, 2019 2:56:28 PM

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