Typing versus handwriting

Manfred Kuhn has a wonderful blog for note-takers called, sensibly enough, Taking Note. He makes posts about the theory and practice of note-taking, often ferreting out very interesting articles from all over the web. I’ve referenced his writing before.

In a recent post, Manfred commented on a post by another blogger writing about memory, and specifically about her assertion that typing doesn’t help memory. The original post contains several interesting nuggets about memory worth reading, and read Manfred’s comments too. But I have an issue with the same assertion Manfred does. The author writes:

You are much better off writing notes in a notebook than you are highlighting. Notice that I state “writing” rather than “typing” too. I chose that word deliberately. The reason I suggest writing, is that writing with a pen or pencil requires deliberate thought, and though it is a motor skill regulated by Procedural memory, when you are paraphrasing and shaping the words, you are actively using your semantic memory too, thus writing serves as a dual-coding exercise. Typing, on the other hand (ha, ha, no pun intended), is a skill that for most college students anyways, is automatic. It’s something you can do without deliberate thought, thus it is regulated primarily by Procedural memory.  You can type and think of other things. So if you are reading and typing your “notes” you are not processing the material as deeply as you would be if you were hand-writing them. In short, highlighting and typing are time-savers, but not memory-improvers. If your aim is recall, then stick with an old-fashioned pen or pencil.

I don’t know if her point is true that when writing by hand you are “actively using your semantic memory too, thus writing serves as a dual-coding exercise.” Perhaps it is, but there are several advantages to typing your notes into a good information management software (let’s call these “digital notes”), which, to me, can make the computer environment a better way to learn:

  1. More important than merely transcribing notes is paraphrasing them. You have to understand the meaning in order to properly re-state the information. Writing can be a process for developing that understanding. Creating digital notes makes this much easier, because you have the editing tools available in the computer to facilitate that job. Where hand-writing notes is laborious, typing digital notes is actually enjoyable.
  2. I am much more likely to take notes in the first place with computer software, because it is easier and I have confidence that I can find my digital notes later on.
  3. Good note-taking software allows you to create relationships among your digital notes, thus increasing understanding and insight. (For example, see my comments on TheBrain.)
  4. With digital notes, I can carry literally hundreds of notebooks-worth of notes with me on my laptop or even my iPad Mini, which means that I can reference exactly which notes I need whenever I need them.

I am not saying there is no place for hand-written notes. Of course there is. Because you can jot things down quickly, add diagrams or other visual cues, hand-written notes can be very useful. If I were in college today, I might even take classroom notes in a paper notebook. But I would transcribe them as soon as possible to computer, where I could expand on them at will.

Sadly, I never had that chance, as my college days preceded personal computers. I have often wondered how much more I would have enjoyed learning had I had a laptop computer. I suspect a great deal!

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4 comments

  1. Hello readers & writers,
    I am delighted that you read my post on memory closely enough to comment on it and thought I’d do you the same favor and reply back. As I note in my “about” statement on my blog, research does back up what I write about, however I’ve left formal citations out of my on-line writing to make the posts easier to read. With my blog I do not aim to replicate textbooks or scientific articles (though note that I am a professor of psychology), rather I aim to stimulate discussion outside the academy. So thanks again, for giving me the opportunity to engage.

    That said, research does support the position that writing by hand and typing on a keyboard are regulated by different systems – of course both overlap but the differences are important to think about in academic contexts, where the goal is to integrate new topics into long term memory so that you can use them later in new ways. Some examples:

    1. Neuroscience studies that examine children learning to write show different patterns of activation in relevant areas of cortex – writers’ patterns resemble adults’ whereas typists’ patterns do not.

    2. Studies looking at students learning a second language show that learning characters by writing vs. typing yields more or less flexibility in interpreting poorly written exemplars (e.g., on a memory test), such that writers were more flexible and could better identify poorly written characters.

    3. Children who type in school rather than write, when compared to their peers who write, are less able to “prove they are not a robot” when asked to online (something I have to do in order for this post to be accepted here).

    4. And finally, anecdotally (since anecdotes often “stick” better than research results) I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had students in class who’ve begun the term taking notes on their computers and have struggled, and at my suggestion to change to writing have dramatically improved.
    When it’s an anecdote alone, you can dismiss it and say something to effect of “well it’s not the typing vs. writing, but rather the fact they came to office hours, or the wake-up call that they were failing, or whatever” but when research and anecdote begin to converge, we should take note and that’s beginning to happen here. That is, research examining these issues is relatively new, since the need to know is also relatively new and as more accumulates it will surely continue to shape our thinking on the matter. I feel that enough exists for us to begin taking the findings seriously though. School districts are starting to eliminate handwriting from elementary school curricula and are replacing it with keyboarding. Dialogue on the potential developmental implications of these decisions need to (a) be had, and (b) informed by research, and research exists.

    When the conversation is about professionals rather than students, the conversation changes though. Indeed, as you note above, you can do a lot when keyboarding, and do it quickly. But developmentally, we can’t assume that novices and experts “think alike” — there’s plenty of research suggesting that’s faulty reasoning too.

    In short, as you say, there’s a time and a place for handwriting, and a time and place for using all the software tools available to handle information in a neat-and-tidy- and easy-to-access way. With that in mind, you could just as easily say “I’m lucky I got to hand write in college; that may have given me the flexibility I needed to use computers to my advantage later.”

  2. I appreciate the extended reply to my comments, Erica. I certainly can’t argue with the science, nor with your experience in the classroom. The point I was trying to make is that good computer software when used properly — and by that I mean when the user is fully engaged with it — is an effective way to learn with advantages that can’t be matched by handwriting alone. But the key, of course, is the full engagement of the user with the goal of learning, thereby getting the benefits of those advantages.

    Thank you for reading my post!

  3. Thank you very much for referencing my post. I fully agree with you.

    There is nothing wrong with handwriting (and I certainly do not want to against the science either). Children should first learn handwriting. But there is so much more that typing and good computer software allows you to do.

    Manfred

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