Manual notetaking and its effect on increasing student engagement and knowledge retention

Ellen Spender from Swansea University was awarded ALDinHE research funding. Read more about the research below.

Following the recent pandemic when students were, once again, able to return to the in-person on campus learning environment we, as educators, chose to use various teaching strategies to engage our students. The experience of delivering online had highlighted the passive method students had reverted to when the learning environment became virtual. The most common issues we experienced were the reluctance of students to attend with their cameras switched on and that students became passive attendees who listened without taking notes.

The aim of our study was to engage our students who were back in University by offering two different methods of notetaking and to compare their level of knowledge retention during a teaching presentation. The participants were twenty undergraduate final year accounting students:  ten students who were studying a Forensic Accounting module and ten Auditing students. 

Prior to the study, all participants had completed a pre-study qualitative questionnaire to detail their current note-taking preferences and their expectations of the study. Several comments from the pre-study questionnaires completed by the participants are shown below.

Manual notetaking

Question: What expectations do you have from this study?

‘To better understand what type of note taking helps me to retain more information.’

‘Which one I’m better in note taking or handwriting notes. Learn something new.’

These responses demonstrated that the participants understood the objectives of the study before their participation. This was beneficial in enabling us to confirm that the participants were aware of the purpose of the study and their current method of notetaking.

Question: Do you feel that note taking helps with knowledge retention?

‘Yes, writing in my words help me remember.’

‘If I take the notes while the lecturer is talking only the things that I type will be retained.’

‘Yes, having the information in my own words helps me to understand.’

‘Yes 100%.’

These responses established that the participants had previously used both methods in their education prior to the study and that they perceived that both methods can aid knowledge retention.  This helped us to understand that the participants taking part in the study appreciated the importance of notetaking to aid their learning. The comments provided also reaffirmed their belief that notetaking is a key knowledge retention strategy which aided success in the test.

Two 15-minute presentations were delivered to both groups of twenty participants with each group being split into two groups of ten.  The presentations were on subjects which were not familiar to the participants with the first presentation covering the topic of “Changing Environments” and the second presentation covering “Health and Social Care in the UK post Covid-19”.   During each presentation one group of participants were required to make their own notes using the traditional method of pen and paper, with the other group required to make notes using an electronic device.

Participants then completed a test with questions covering the content of the first presentation and the test was marked which enabled their knowledge retention to be measured.  During the second presentation the group taking notes with paper and pen were required to take notes electronically and the group who had previously taken notes electronically were now required to take notes using a paper and pen.  Participants were required to attempt a second test covering the content of the second presentation.

The results of the tests completed after delivery of both presentations clearly showed that the participants scored higher, on average, using the traditional method of notetaking using a paper and pen compared to the participants who had made notes using an electronic device. The results from the first presentation which covered the topic of Health and Social Care in the UK post Covid-19 presentation gave an average result of 11.4 out of 20 using the manual method compared to an average of 10.2 out of 20 for those participants who had taken notes using an electronic device. The test results for the second presentation which covered Changing Environments were similar, with participants who had made notes using a paper and pen scoring an average of 10.3 marks out of 20 compared with an average of 8.5 marks out of 20 for those participants who had made notes using an electronic device.

Following completion of the tests participants were required to complete a post-study questionnaire which covered their own views related to notetaking. The participants were asked to use the following Likert scale to enable the authors of the study to obtain a holistic view of all participants opinions and their level of agreement.

  1. Strongly Disagree
  2. Disagree
  3. Neutral
  4. Agree
  5. Strongly Agree

The questionnaire responses were then analysed to determine the outcomes of the study in order to ascertain which method of notetaking the participants found more beneficial for knowledge retention.

Pre-Questionnaire Results

Table 1

QuestionAverage  Score
I usually rely on technology to take notes3.5
I usually rely on materials such as pens, paper highlighter to take notes3.6

When we compared results of the question shown in Table 1 taken from the pre-study questionnaire with the question in Table 2 taken from the post-study questionnaire we found that initially the participants scores were similar between using technology to take notes and using paper and pen to take notes.  However, following completion of the post-study questionnaire the result of the question shown in Table 2 showed that the participants view of using traditional methods to take notes had changed to favour this method.

Post Questionnaire Results

Table 2:

Post Study QuestionsAverage Score
I feel that personal note taking is a useful part of learning4.7
This study has encouraged me to take handwritten notes in the future4.2
This study has encouraged me to use electronic devices for note taking in future2.7

After completion of the study, the participants view of handwritten and technology notetaking had changed to favour handwritten notetaking as a form of knowledge retention. Table 2 shows the positive result in favour of handwritten notetaking, with participants showing that they would, in future, be encouraged to make handwritten notes.  It was clear that participants were engaged throughout the study and their participation encouraged them to use an alternative method for notetaking.  Prior to the study, the participants had indicated that they believed that technology was the better method for notetaking.  Following their participation in the study the results clearly show that the overwhelming majority of participants believed that a handwritten method of notetaking was a more effective learning strategy for knowledge retention.  

The results of the study will encourage all educators to incorporate manual notetaking into their own teaching in order to benefit their students learning and knowledge retention. The study also showed that there was a high degree of engagement from participants who took part and verbal feedback indicated that this was something they would incorporate into their future studies.

The aim of the study is to share our research, experience, and good practice so that other educators can consider incorporating basic materials, such as paper and pen, as one of several pedagogies currently being used to increase student knowledge, student engagement, and student satisfaction.


  • Ellen Spender
  • Sue Evans
  • Lesley Davies
  • Tracey William

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