How I got a CS degree with pen and paper (and why I'm doing it again)

September 16, 2015 · 5 minute read

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My Problem

I showed up at college in the fall of 2010 with two pairs of shoes, a pronounced case of post-homeschooled social awkwardness, and one pesky problem: although I wanted to major in computer science, I had never learned to touch-type.

This wasn’t such a big deal when I was actually doing computer programming homework, since people who can code at typing speed are pretty rare. But typing notes in my lecture classes quickly proved to be impossible. I’d be surrounded by rows of people furiously clacking away on their laptops while the teacher flipped through PowerPoint slides like playing cards, and I’d fall way behind just hunting for my spacebar.

My “Solution”

So I decided that the only way to keep up was to go old-school and take notes by hand. I bought a five-subject notebook at the campus store and showed up to my next class with a fistful of pencils, ready for action.

I could write faster than I could type, but without knowing shorthand, this method still wasn’t fast enough to allow me to perfectly transcribe every lecture slide. So I was forced to write smarter, not faster. I’d listen carefully to the lecture while paraphrasing anything that seemed important, in real time, using as few words as possible.

My Discovery

I quickly noticed several benefits to this low-tech approach.
  • Better focus Not having a computer screen in front of me during class meant no distracting emails, instant messages or social media notifications in my peripheral vision, so I was able to follow the flow of the lecture a lot more clearly.
  • Better engagement Not transcribing PowerPoints by rote forced me to think about the material as it was being taught, instead of just saving it to disk for future study. And restating the material in my own words sometimes caused me to write down an incorrect statement, but it more often helped me to realize that I really had no idea what had just been said. My hand would shoot up with the pencil still in it: “Can I ask a question about that?” Then I’d rephrase the teacher’s answer too, constantly searching for the irreducible nuggets of information that would mean less time reviewing messy notes.
  • Better retention I found that I seemed to do better on tests when I took notes on paper, especially if the test required a lot of memorization. For whatever reason, I could visualize an answer written on the left lower side of a page much more clearly than one written somewhere in a formless text document. Plus, I was able to scrawl down - and study - visual notes like diagrams and flowcharts, critical learning aids that many students skip during class note-taking because there’s no easy way to enter them into a text document.
As my stack of notebooks soared, so did my grades. Soon I was dragging extra paper into every class, including computer labs where my notebooks were the only dead trees anywhere in sight - leading to the slightly goofy spectacle of a computer science major scribbling down Java or C code snippets with a #2 pencil. But other than the realization that I had found a study method that worked, I didn’t think too much about what I was doing.

It’s Not Just Me…

I had no idea that an emerging body of research was backing up my decidedly non-scientific findings. A widely-publicized Princeton/UCLA study called “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard” recently found that even when students used their laptops solely for taking class notes, their ability to retain, synthesize and apply new material lagged far behind that of students who did the mental “heavy lifting” of jotting down notes by hand. (The cognitive mechanisms proposed to explain these findings are still a little speculative, but if you’re interested, you can read Scientific American’s friendly summary here.) And that’s before taking into account the estimated 42% of college students who check social media or give into other laptop distractions during class, with predictable effects on their learning experience.

…It’s You, Too

So here’s my one low-tech study tip for success: Whenever possible, take class notes by hand, on physical paper.

I don’t care how fast you can type; what happens in your brain when you put a pen to paper is still going to be a greater learning aid than fifty tabs in OneNote. And I’m not kidding when I say that this little trick might do more for your grades than coffee, flashcards and all-night study sessions combined. It certainly worked for me: scrawled notes in hand, I graduated summa cum laude last year in a technical field with which I had very little previous experience.

I’ve gotten my words-per-minute count on a computer keyboard (along with my social skills) up to a respectable speed since my freshman days, but when I started grad school last fall, I made sure to have plenty of scrap paper on hand. If the pen really is mightier than the keyboard, going low-tech in class might be the surest - and smartest - way to level up.

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