It’s something I say all of the time in person, and now I’m going on record. I’m explaining why you should take notes by hand, rather than on a device.
I’ve written before about the importance of writing correctly, even in a digital world, yet I am asked about this so often that I feel it merits its own article.
Why You Should Take Notes By Hand
There are a number of reasons writing by hand (legibly) is a great skill to have (see this article from Lifehack for some reasons), yet I’m going to focus specifically on notetaking.
The bottom line is that the brain interacts very differently with what it writes than it does with what it types. It also interacts differently when reading on a screen versus on a page, so you may want to print this article out, actually.
All of the reasons to write instead of type can be boiled down and oversimplified into this truth:
Writing forces focus.
But wait, there’s more. A lot more.
Handwriting is more complicated, and that’s a good thing
In a Wall Street Journal article, Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington is quoted as saying, “handwriting differs from typing because it requires executing sequential strokes to form a letter, whereas keyboarding involves selecting a whole letter by touching a key.”
That is no small thing.
Dr. Berninger explains that in brain scans, “sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory—the system for temporarily storing and managing information.”
We can strengthen the tie between what we learn and our working memory through writing. This is also no small thing. I hear all of the time about working memory issues in gifted children (and typical learners as well). Why would we do anything that would subvert it? Why would actually encourage people away from a known way to aid it?
We Remember More
Typing is a flow-through task, automatically done (in fact, you type more slowly and with more errors if you think about it while you do it).
Writing by hand is not. This plays a role in a truth that researchers have found: you remember far more of what you write than you do of what you type.
We Remember Differently
In the research done by Pam Mueller and David Oppenheimer, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.
So, if someone is reeling off a grocery list to you, by all means type it. But if you are expected to actually use and think about the information, grab your pen.
We Produce More Worthwhile Information
Dr. Berninger (again) conducted studies on students in grades two, four and six, and found that the “children wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand.”
That runs counter to the main argument I hear in favor of devices, which is that it’s faster.
In fact, Mueller and Oppenheimer found that students who captured more of the lecture verbatim through typed notes actually had lower retention than students who had typed less. Capturing more through type does not mean capturing more through thought.
Here’s the thing: it’s faster to type, but producing quality information for use later is not about speed. It’s also about processing.
Writing is about more than dictation. It’s about summarizing, paraphrasing, interpreting, and evaluating. Writing notes becomes the first step in studying. You process what you hear, almost like chewing before digesting.
Is that gross? I hope that’s not gross.
In Mueller and Oppenheimer’s studies, they found that students performed better on tests when they studied using notes they took with their own hand, as opposed to students who studied notes they’d typed. This was true even when the students knew they’d be tested.
Writing on Paper Offers Fewer Distractions
Students on devices are often distracted by off-task options offered on the device. These same researchers found that college students using devices to take notes only used them for that purpose 60% of the time.
The other 40%? Completely unrelated off-task distractions courtesy of the Vulcan mind meld that is social media and gaming.
This is research that’s been repeated, so if you love a good peer-reviewed journal article, check out Kay & Lauricella, 2011; Kraushaar & Novak, 2010; Skolnick & Puzo, 2008; and Sovern, 2013.
Writing is More Fun
As many of you know, I became a teacher because I like office supplies, and there is no doubt that a beautiful pack of Papermate Flair or (be still my heart) Frixion markers will make notetaking a joy. It goes beyond cool pens, though.
Visual notetaking is actually fun, and can make you feel less bored during the lesson, leading to better feelings about your learning. And that’s a good thing.
What if You Can’t Write?
There are people who literally cannot write, for a variety of reasons. I would suggest the following:
- Record the material (if permissible) and listen again. Listen at a higher rate of speed (to prevent boredom) while reading over notes you typed. Carefully edit those notes, highlighing, using bold and italics, indention and bullet points. Make them your own.
- Type your notes and then write them by hand later. This works if speed is an issue. This may work for students who struggle to write for any length of time. If your hand is broken, obviously this won’t help. If a student does struggle to write for a long period of time, read my article on writing/pencil grip.
- Be aware that typing is not ideal. Force yourself to focus and think during the class. Consider what you’re hearing. Consider the concepts. If you were limited to how quickly you could write, what would you write? Don’t overtype simply because you can. Do the analysis that comes naturally when limited by writing speed.
- If you can write, but prefer the organization power of writing digitally, use a stylus on the device, rather than typing.
It’s Not Old-School
Recently, I heard another educator who was speaking at a conference expressing dissatisfaction that when she took her son on a college visit, the classroom looked like it did thirty years ago, with students taking notes on paper. She lamented this, and questioned how the university could consider itself prestigious and worth its cost if this was the kind of education they provided.
It turns out shiny doesn’t equal superior, digital doesn’t equal dominant, and that how you interact with words is as important as the words themselves.
I won’t stop beating this drum, and neither should educators and parents. More and more districts are moving to device-based learning without even considering the implications for the actual process of learning. That is a disservice that borders on absurd.
I’m not saying there is not a place for devices in learning, obviously. I’m saying that we cannot stop writing by hand without negative consequences for learning.
There is room for both, but the research is clear that in the pen versus the keyboard in notetaking, the pen emerges the clear victor.
Take notes by hand. It will serve you, and your students, well.