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Duly noted: do we learn better through handwriting or typing?

By Kobo • June 25, 2023Big Ideas in Books

Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

Cognitive science has some answers worth noting.

There was a time not too long ago when the sound of a keyboard in a lecture hall was a rare distraction. But now there are few post-secondary students who show up to class without a laptop. For Millennials, Gen X-ers, and Boomers who got through school with ink-stained fingers and dog-eared notebooks, this abundance of technology seems like a progressive (and luxurious) development.

But does all that typing lead to better learning?

A study by Oppenheimer and Mueller published in the Association of Psychological Science found a surprising result when comparing students’ ability to comprehend and retain information presented in a lecture when typing notes on a laptop versus writing longhand. The longhand note-takers showed that they understood the material better and could recall more of it than their keyboard-equipped counterparts. And yet, longhand writers wrote about 70% fewer words while the keyboarders were able to transcribe the lectures almost word-for-word. What’s going on here?

A 2014 study showed that longhand note-takers got better results than students on laptops

Let's first define what we mean by “note-taking.” In the most general terms, there are two methods.

  1. The first note-taking method is called external storage. This is where information that the student records the material as accurately as possible as it’s presented, focusing on capturing as much of what's presented as possible. If it's a lecture, then this method means capturing every word spoken to produce a comprehensive transcript.
  2. The other method is called encoding, where only the most significant concepts are noted, alongside the student's own thoughts on their significance—with connections to other concepts and clues that will aid recall later. This method can include symbols like circles, arrows, diagrams, or anything else that's meaningful to the student.

Because external storage, the first method, requires the student to write at least as fast as the teacher is speaking, it requires the fastest method of writing available. By contrast, encoding demands a highly flexible means of capturing material, so the student can create a set of notes that are meaningful to them.

Longhand note-takers understood the material better

And studies have shown that a student's choice of tools influences the note-taking method they employ, with students employing the external storage method when they had a laptop at hand, while students equipped with an electronic stylus and note-taking tablet (or pen & paper) intuitively applied the encoding method.

Research has shown that groups of students taking notes on the same content using either a laptop or by writing longhand performed almost identically on the ability to recall facts—but the group writing longhand significantly outperformed on the ability to apply concepts. The near-perfect transcriptions produced by the laptop typists led to a weaker grasp of the meaning of what they were supposed to be learning, while the more flexible (if slower) methods of the longhand note-takers led to greater comprehension.

Making handwritten notes results in better comprehension of conceptual information

A 2017 study entitled “Only Three Fingers Write, but the Whole Brain Works” shed further light on what might be going on here, especially when note-taking includes diagrams and doodles. Researchers studied brain scans of young adults typing and drawing with an electronic stylus in response to words from the board game Pictionary™. What they found was that when drawing, the subjects' brains showed activity associated with optimal learning conditions. But the subjects' brains didn't show that activity when typing. The link between this type of brain activity and learning isn't perfectly understood, but nevertheless the researchers concluded that optimal learning should include handwritten notes and whatever visualizations the subjects found useful.

The groups performed almost identically on the ability to recall facts—but the longhand writing group significantly outperformed on the ability to apply concepts

Fortunately, we don’t need to go back to pen and paper to get the most from this new understanding of how to optimize our learning methodology. For instance, an electronic device with a stylus that lets you write notes by hand offers every advantage of pen and paper—but with an unlimited supply of pages (and no ink stains). Devices that convert handwriting to text are extra-helpful, making your notes more easily readable and automatically searchable. Using a stylus to mark up digital documents with highlights, underlines, and marginalia—in ways that make sense for your learning style—can unlock capabilities that students of the past (and many of the present) have only dreamed of.

An eReader with a stylus is as effective as paper and pen

Students eager to try their hands at digital note-taking should prioritize devices that first and foremost do a good job of displaying documents clearly and capturing handwriting accurately. And serious learners should be wary of devices that boast of features that are undesirable in an educational context: access to email, ChatGPT, social media apps, and notifications in lectures is unlikely to aid either recall or comprehension.

Devices that convert handwriting to text are extra-helpful, making your notes more easily readable and automatically searchable

Whether you ultimately decide to pick up a pen or an electronic stylus, feel confident that you’re taking up a weapon against the growing din of clattering of keys while slaying the dragons of endless distraction and shallow thinking. ◼︎

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