Whether you’re in a lecture, workshop, or you’re trying to learn something new through a how-to book, you will probably be jotting down notes about what you’re learning. Are you jotting them on a piece of paper, or typing them in a word file? Science says that hand writing is the way to turn note-taking into learning.
Hand writing lets you stop and think
Writing things out by hand is slow. Typing can be much faster, making it the increasingly preferred method for note-taking in college lectures. But the fact that it is slower means that it’s actually a better way to learn.
A study performed at Princeton University and UCLA looked at note-taking by college students and how it affected their understanding of material. They found that students who took hand-written notes performed better when tested on the lecture compared to those who typed up notes.
Previously it had been suggested that computers just allowed for more distractions that interfered with learning; but this study showed that word-processing alone, without internet or distractions, still failed to serve as well as writing by hand.
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Hand writing reinforces learning
It all comes down to the effort involved in writing compared to typing. For someone who can type quickly, a lecture can be almost transcribed verbatim. But how much sinks in as the words go in your ear and out your fingers? The brain doesn’t necessarily need to be engaged.
With hand written notes, much more goes into the cognitive process. The slower nature of writing means the student must choose what to write down. This means that the information is processed immediately after hearing it, as the student decides what the main message should be. New information has to be summarized, forcing critical thinking to occur and accelerating the process of learning.
Thinking more about the material isn’t the only thing that hand writing does for your brain. Some studies have suggested that children learn how to read better when they are forced to slowly learn how to form the letters on paper. And in another study, writing by hand inspired more ideas in children than typing words out.
Different brain function patterns might be involved as well. Brain imaging of students with better handwriting showed activation in the part of the brain associated with working memory, and increased overall activation in reading and writing related networks.
Writing also lets you be creative
It makes sense that being forced to summarize information as it comes in enhances the learning process. But more than that, writing notes by hand also allows more freedom and creativity in the information that’s put down. Drawing, underlining, circling important words, crossing things out, arrows, concept maps – these modifications can’t as easily be used in typing.
As personal computing gets more convenient, it is increasingly used in all aspects of classroom and learning environments. But that doesn’t mean it is a better alternative than old-fashioned pen and paper.