Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Right on! vs. Write on! vs. Type on!

It’s time to give a popular expression from the ‘60s – Right on, baby! – a new spelling – Write on! – because of new research, showing that there’s some mental magic in the process of writing by hand, rather than typing, when you need to recall the information later.  The research suggests that the way our brains work when handwriting is different than when we type, specifically showing that our ability to recall what we noted goes up when we go “old school” – writing notes by hand.
This could be significant news especially to the laptop note taking student of today.  The way students often take notes in class now, especially at the college level, has  been heavily influenced by digital options.  No need to sharpen a pencil or click a Bic to take live class notes when you have the convenience of a lightweight notebook PC or an iPad with a portable Bluetooth keyboard attached.

But the research now shows that you’ll not remember as much of what you learned from class if your hand was not involved in the physical act of shaping each letter, such as when hand-writing your class notes.

What the handwriting research showed

Two things we’ve known already:
  • Employing a laptop PC rather than writing by hand, is an increasingly popular way of taking notes.
  • Learning experts have long conjectured that computer-typed note-taking may be a less effective way to learn compared to longhand note taking.
Older research looked at laptop usage and how it affected a person’s ability to multitask or handle distractions. In this newest research, the study’s authors found that learning may be relatively impaired when solely relying on a laptop for note-taking because the mental processes in typing compared to hand-writing of notes uses shallower brain processing. This appeared to be the case largely because those who typed their notes – much faster than handwriting – were more likely to capture the lecturer’s words verbatim.  By comparison, longhand note-takers tend to mentally process the incoming spoken words and then capture the concepts or essence of the speaker’s words in their own words – a more mentally engaging process than merely transcribing exactly what they heard.

How the handwriting vs. typing research was performed

Research authors Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer instructed study participants to take notes in a classroom setting, half of the participants by writing out longhand and half by typing by notebook PC.
The researchers then tested what the participants had learned by quizzing them on three factors:
  • Conceptual understanding of what they had heard
  • Factual detail from the lecture
  • How well they had processed and generalized what they had heard 
Just as in previous studies, this study's researchers found that those who typed out their notes captured more of the lecturer's content than those who wrote by hand. However, those who typed scored lower in their conceptual understanding of the material and in their ability to apply what they had learned compared to those who wrote their notes out by hand.

In summary, going old school when taking notes is better than using a laptop when measured by retention, understanding, and application. 

While there is no question that being able to take more notes can be beneficial, as a laptop note taker can do, the tendency to transcribe lectures word for word when typing appears to make learning/retention sketchier.  So, when learning and retaining are more important than volume of note-taking, consider writing out your notes, which results in a more engages your brain with the incoming information (in order to reframe the spoken words into your own words) and you’ll find that what you heard sticks with you better.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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