Paper or Digital Notes? – OurWarwick

Paper or Digital Notes?

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Linux, Emacs, programming if I'm lucky, music (clarinet).
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Paper or Digital Notes?

The decision between paper and digital notes deserves some discussion. At university, especially in lectures, you need to take notes to actively engage with the content. I would suppose that for most students, their goal in a lecture is to learn (at least some of) the content being conveyed. Notes don’t necessarily need to be a perfect record of the lecture content, at least in Computer Science, where slides and lecture recordings are made available afterwards. We can use this to consider the approach we adopt when taking notes.

Pros of Paper

I can touch-type at about 60 words per minute. This is fast enough that I could reasonably copy down all of the text from a slide in the time a lecturer has it displayed. Although taking this approach would produce a ‘perfect’ set of notes, it wouldn’t require me to actually engage with the content of the slides. Even if I didn’t understand what I was typing, I could still copy it down.

Unless you’ve mastered shorthand, pen and paper will afford no such luxury. To take reasonably comprehensive notes, it is necessary to select and summarise the essential core of a concept; otherwise, the lecturer will move on without you. If you don’t understand something, it will be painfully obvious.

Cons of Paper (Pros of Digital)

At risk of continuing my paper-prescribing platitudes, I should acknowledge the weaknesses of physical notes.

Paper doesn’t organise itself for you

My notes for all of my year 1 modules are mixed together across two pads of paper and a small notebook. This can make things fairly challenging to find. Ring binders and dividers can help, but they add bulk. By contrast, digital note-taking makes it easy to hierarchically organise your notes into files and folders, with heading structures and links within files.

Paper is heavy

Depending on how much you are writing, paper notes can quickly become too heavy to reasonably carry around everywhere. By contrast, a laptop hard-drive can store orders of magnitude more data without weighing you down much at all.

Paper is non-fungible

Being an object in the physical world, rather than an arrangement of charges, there isn’t an easy way to make a backup of your paper notes. If they are lost or destroyed, that’s it. Digital notes can be backed up to another computer, and their contents can be copied or rearranged.

Cons of Digital

(Some) Digital Formats are Temporary

Technology is still developing very rapidly, so many file formats will become obsolete as time moves on. The risk this poses to lecture notes, which are unlikely to be of interest in a year’s time, is admittedly low. All the same, I would advise caution, and suggest taking notes using some minor extension of plain text, since anything more complex will eventually be replaced or forgotten.

Perhaps more pertinently, if at some point you decide to start using a different note-taking program, then there’s a chance your old notes won’t transfer over. You’re then either stuck with the old system you dislike, or forced to manually transfer the old notes to the new one, if you still want access to those old notes.

Reliance on the Teetering Stack

A golden rule in computing is to ensure you have access to multiple copies of anything important. If your notes only exist on Google Drive and your laptop’s battery dies, you lose your internet connection or (somehow) Google’s servers die, you’re out of luck.

Knobs and Dials

This won’t apply to anyone with enough sense not to get into it, but I’m a serial computer tinkerer. I would happily spend all day configuring my desktop environment, with shortcuts and macros and all the bells and whistles you can imagine. As such, if I’m tasked with focusing enough to just use the computer to take notes, I can sometimes struggle. It’s also all too easy to switch to a browser tab or check your e-mail when they’re just a click away. Using paper gets rid of these distractions for me.

TeX Equations Suuuuuuuuuuuuuck

For taking maths notes, LaTeX is completely unusable. Unless you spend hours setting up a magic workflow to make macros appear from nowhere, it is unbearably slow input anything but the most basic equations. I have heard of others who use a tablet to write maths, but since you’re writing by hand anyway at that point, it still seems like too much added complexity for me to get distracted by.

The screen is finite; its real estate, finite.

I would be impressed if someone showed up to a lecture with a laptop that has more than a 17-inch display. Even that is smaller than an open A4 note-book. Even on a large screen, displaying more than about 3 files at once is probably going to start making things feel cramped. If you’re taking paper notes, you can still have your laptop on the desk (while being considerate for others’ personal space) and have the slides or a web browser open without needing to constantly flip back and forth.

If you have a desk to yourself, paper notes are only limited by its physical dimensions, which are all but guaranteed to exceed those of the screen.


The way you take notes is ultimately a personal preference. I’ve tried to suppress my irrational feelings of loathing towards digital writing (except TeX equations), so hopefully the arguments presented seem somewhat balanced.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the)
Linux, Emacs, programming if I'm lucky, music (clarinet).
Find out more about me Contact Aidan

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