Taking Note of Technology

Some Stuyvesant students have opted to take notes digitally in place of the traditional pencil-on-paper method, and teachers’ perspectives on this phenomenon vary.

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The experience of furiously scrawling formulas, dates, and definitions on paper while trying to keep up with a lecture or outrace a PowerPoint is something that every Stuyvesant student is familiar with. This traditional method of note-taking with pen and paper may often be too messy, tiring, and wasteful. As a result, some Stuyvesant students have branched out into the world of digital note-taking.

Junior Natalie Keung began taking notes on an iPad two years ago, noting both improved practicality and visuals. “I saw on TikTok the pretty, aesthetic notes, but I also thought it [would be] more convenient to have everything in one place instead of separate notebooks,” she said.

Other students have turned to digital note-taking solely for its functionality. “It’s a lot easier to type [on a computer]. I’m really a slow writer, so it’s hard for me to keep up with what teachers are saying while also writing it down,” junior Angeline Song said.

Whether or not students have permission to use technology in class depends on the preferences of an individual teacher. “Sophomore year, all my teachers were fine with it, but this year, two teachers specifically didn’t really want me to use my iPad,” Keung said. “My English teacher just prefers [that we use] a more special notebook for writing.”

Some teachers strongly prefer a device-free classroom. Though digital art is an extremely popular medium among student artists at Stuyvesant, from those who are members of The Spectator’s Art Department to designers of school merchandise, art teacher Jane Karp exclusively teaches physical art. “I am very traditional. We use traditional art mediums: charcoal, graphite, watercolors, color pastels. I have zero background in digital art, and I don’t encourage it in my class,” she said.

The traditional methods of art that Karp uses offer hands-on experiences, which come with a wealth of benefits. “Having that physical experience, tactile experience of art material [...] helps you understand the challenges that, let’s say, an artist from the past faced with simple, basic material. You appreciate what they achieved more if you had to struggle with it yourself,” Karp explained. The availability of both digital and physical mediums allows students to obtain the best of both worlds as their artistic journeys progress.

Social studies teacher David Hanna also prefers that students take notes on class lectures in their notebooks, arguing that the process of handwriting forces students to slow down and focus on the material. “Students retain information better when they write it down than if they type it. [...] When people type, they tend to just type mindlessly. They’re just trying to, basically, keep up with the notes. Something about the process of writing […] forces you to be more selective. You have to think,” he said.

Evidently, some of the limitations of physical notes can be beneficial to the learning process. Hanna referenced a university study published in Psychological Science, in which scientists Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer analyzed the relationship between thinking and doing in note-taking. The slower pace of handwriting compared to typing limits the amount of notes that can be taken, but the subconscious act of choosing which words to write allows for a deeper understanding of course material. Further, the inability to press the “delete” button when writing in a notebook means that each word can land a place in a student’s long-term memory.

Sophomore Cindy Zhong echoed this sentiment. “Making errors when note-taking traditionally and having to white it out makes me remember the information that I replaced the error with better,” she said in an e-mail interview.

However, Song believes that the process of note-taking itself doesn’t matter, as long as the necessary information is successfully organized for future use. “I don’t think you learn in class. You gather the information that you need on paper and then you learn when you study later for a test,” Song said. “I’m the type of person who will mindlessly write things down and then study them later, and it’s been a system that’s been working. It doesn’t really change, whether I’m writing the information down or I’m typing it down.”

This perception of learning has not been shared by all of Song’s teachers. “In my sophomore year, a teacher insisted that [taking] paper [notes] would probably be better, but using a computer was allowed. I was getting all 100s, until this one test I completely flunked, and I was forced to see the teacher after class. She blamed it on the fact that I was using a computer instead of notes, and then banned my computer,” Song said.

Despite differing attitudes around note-taking methods, most students and teachers agree that technology has become an inexorable element of academics. This is partly due to how the pandemic forced both students and teachers to transition to remote learning and adjust to new learning tools. Even before remote learning, teachers were dependent on certain technologies that were simply unreplicable with traditional methods.

For example, Karp has found that museum websites have allowed her AP Art History classes to view famous artworks, especially those that are three-dimensional, more intimately. “Since you can’t travel to these places, a virtual tour, where you can wander through the space, can be incredibly helpful,” she explained.

Technology is also an essential aspect of social studies teacher Josina Dunkel’s class. Homework and classwork are often assigned on platforms such as Pear Deck, Perusall, and Google Classroom. “What I like about using digital assignments is that I can give feedback without interrupting the students’ work. In the old days, collecting and returning work took time out of class, but also meant that the students wouldn't have it for a few days,” Dunkel wrote in an e-mail interview.

The customizability of these digital options allows teachers and students to adjust assignments to every student’s needs. “I can hyperlink vocabulary or other extensions which can expand understanding of the text. Students can more easily work at their own pace and boxes on worksheets can expand if students want to write more, or if they need the text to be bigger,” Dunkel explained. She did, however, note the controversy around digital note-taking. “I have read research that says that hand-writing is better for memory and I do worry about that a bit but the other benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks.”

For Zhong, technology is most valuable when it is used in conjunction with more traditional methods. She is self-studying AP Biology and notes how she incorporates digital resources into her studying. “Albert.io and Crash Course are amazing for science APs. […] Technology is a great way to reinforce understanding of something, but ultimately if you have a niche question that the Internet can’t answer, it’s best to consult the teacher of a traditional class,” she explained.

Opinions may shift in favor of digital note-taking in the future as students become more and more reliant on technology to organize and complete their schoolwork. “When you [consider] millennials and Gen Z, you’re getting to a point where people are so comfortable with these [digital] ways of doing things, [issues concerning digitalization] wouldn’t even occur to them,” Hanna said.