Electronic devices have replaced manual activities and operations in a great many applications—none more so than in the context of communication of all sorts and “writing”.
Most people have come to use their cell phones, tablets, and/or laptops to send messages to others and make notes for themselves.
If you walk into a room of people in a post-elementary school or in a professional meeting, you will most likely hear a din of tap-tap-tapping of fingers on keyboards, taking notes. For many of us, the physical act of writing letters on paper with a pen or pencil has become an infrequent activity.
For those who have chosen to use electronic means to record their thoughts and important information, could it be that the old-fashioned way is somehow better? A study published by the Association for Psychological Science wanted to find an answer to this question.
Writing by Hand Enhances Learning and Retention
Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California at Los Angeles conducted three tests with university students to determine what differences there might be for the learner between taking notes on a laptop computer versus writing them by hand.
What they found is that those subjects who wrote their notes on paper retained more of what they heard and were able to more effectively conceptualize the subject matter. In fact, the researchers went so far as to say:
“…when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing…whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”
The reason: writing with your hand engages the memory and cognition centers of your brain in a different way than typing.
In addition, you are more likely to write down key points as you actually process the information you hear rather than simply taking dictation because handwriting is slower than typing.
One major flaw in using a laptop for note-taking is that it often invites multi-tasking, which is distracting to the learner, impacting attention and retention.
How Handwriting Reinforces Learning
Keyboarding has increasingly become a more valued skill than handwriting and elementary schools’ curricula have changed to stress digital mastery over handwriting.
This is contradictory to a body of research that indicates writing by hand promotes literacy through its enforcement of alphabetical letter processing in the brain.
The act of physically writing letters on paper engages different senses and requires finer motor skills, resulting in motor memory in connection with learning the letters themselves and the words that they create.
The sensori-motor experience of writing by hand has a measurable effect on the brain not found when the same letters are typed. Letters are processed differently than other shapes because of their inherent meaning and role in language development.
“…the importance of sensori-motor interactions with the environment is sometimes overlooked by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists alike. Recently, though, there has been renewed support from a variety of disciplines for the idea that sensori-motor interactions influence many cognitive operations.”
Cursive writing has especially been linked to increased creativity.
Other Advantages of Writing by Hand
We may have become used to carrying around a laptop to use whenever and wherever we need it. But consider the benefits of leaving the computer at home or on your desk at the office:
- Pen/pencil and paper are lighter than a laptop, cheaper, more flexible, don’t require electricity, and won’t break if you drop them.
- A lighter carrying case/backpack has less negative impact on posture and back strain.
- Significantly smaller carbon footprint; paper can be re-used, recycled, or burned for heat.
- Long exposure to digital screens can be detrimental to your health – use of personal electronics has been linked to decreased brain function, developmental delay in young children, obesity, sleep disruption, headaches, eye strain and even damage.
The old-fashioned way of writing may be slower but the results are better in a variety of ways. So consider the scratching of a pencil or the click of a pen rather than the tapping of the keyboard if you’re trying to learn something new.