A recent psychological experiment looked at whether people learn more in a lecture by taking notes on a laptop or taking notes on paper. So far I have only read a summary of the study (so all of the necessary caveats apply), but the full research article is available open access. Apparently people who take notes on laptops try to transcribe as many details as possible, whereas people who take notes by hand record less information but pick out key points and summarize. Moreover, it is usually easier to lay out information in tables and diagrams and whatnot by hand, and to draw arrows and whatnot by hand than on a laptop. Maybe with the right software and a lot of experience you can do those things on a laptop, but otherwise doing it by hand wins.
Now, there's a debate to be had about whether it's better to do this on paper or on a tablet, but two things to note:
1) It's obvious that if the key advantage is that doing it by hand is both flexible and forces you to think then the difference between old-fashioned paper and a digital tablet is probably smaller.
2) Paper offers fewer distractions than a tablet. You can't switch your paper between the writing app and email or Facebook or games or whatever.
In the bigger picture though, I find it fascinating that something as old-fashioned as writing things down might be a good way to learn. We're always hearing that there's no problem in education that can't be solved by throwing more technology at it, so it's kind of funny to hear that pencil and paper still have their uses. Most of the points from my blogging about Geek Heresy apply.
Also, there's an important implication here for the perennial debate about lectures (a topic that I have published on): A lecture class is only as passive as the listener. The person who merely sits there will usually learn little. The person who tries to write down everything without sorting the information will learn more, but the person who learns the most will be the one who is thinking about what they're hearing and identifying the most important points and writing them down in some sort of structured list or table or diagram. Of course, this places the responsibility for learning on the student, whereas the modern zeitgeist places the responsibility on the instructor, who must adopt whatever techniques are politically favored if they wish to escape blame. Fascinatingly, the politically favored techniques generally require one to purchase technology from vendors. Fancy that.