Pen and paper notes

Don’t forget to write that down | Day 91

Is writing notes bad for your memory? Over on Wired’s Brain Watch blog, Christian Jarrett claims that’s the case. He begins the story with a funny and sarcastic reference to the much-criticised Prof Susan Greenfield’s scaremongering about Google being responsible for making people’s memory worse. He says it’s actually much worse than that.

According to Jarrett, a study published last year in Memory & Cognition reveals that when people take notes on paper, that’ s enough to become worse at remembering the facts the notes are on. However, I believe this conclusion is based on a misreading of the study.

The study’s experimental design involved the setup of a picture card game known as Concentration (or Memory, or Pairs) – you have to match pairs of identical cards by memorising their location in a grid.  The participants were allowed to study the grid of cards and, depending on the group they were in, told to either take notes of the locations and identities, or simply try to memorise them in order to “win the game in fewer turns.”

After this study phase, the note-takers had their notes removed without warning, and then both groups were tested on the locations and identities of the cards. The results demonstrated that the note-taking group performed worse than the people who had only their memory to rely on.

Does this mean that note-taking is bad for memory? Well, not really.

This particular study was actually designed to research something known as intentional forgetting – when people deliberately choose to forget certain information; this may be paired with the of use external tools to ‘offload’ that information from their memory. For example, we use a type of intentional forgetting when we set reminders for future calendar appointments. If you know your smartphone is reminding you about lunch with Fred in three weeks, you don’t need to remember it at this point of time. The researchers in this study wanted to examine that effect in a naturalistic setting, hence the note-takers didn’t get a warning about their notes being taken away.

Contrast this with writing notes at a lecture – converting what the lecturer says to a set of personal references you’ve drafted according to your own logic, can actually help to understand and  remember the material.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what the authors of this particular memory study say in their conclusion:

“However, that participants used intentional forgetting as part of their note-taking strategy for our task does not mean that individuals always do so. A large literature within educational psychology concerns the use of note-taking as an aid to encoding information better, versus using the notes as an external memory store, and the purpose for note-taking may influence whether or not intentional forgetting is involved.”

In other words, for this test people wrote notes so that they wouldn’t have to remember their content. But that’s not always the case – so don’t worry about having to toss out that stack of post-its.

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