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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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!