In our technology saturated, hyper-connected sci-fi reality, handwriting often seems like a relic of the distant past. Communication happens through email, notes are taken on tablets, and schedules are marked up on smartphones — who has time to scrawl anything out by hand anymore?
But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to forsake the act of putting the pen to the page. Turns out, there are real benefits to be gleaned from the process, benefits that typing can’t replicate.
We already know that handwriting is instrumental when we’re first learning to read and write – kids learn to read more quickly when they are taught to write by hand, rather than on a computer – but new research suggests that it may also be beneficial long after we’ve mastered both skills.
In a series of three experiments published this month in Psychological Science, college students were divided into two groups; one group was instructed to attend lectures and take notes by hand on paper and the other was told to type up their notes on laptops.
While the students who typed out their notes were able to take more of them (in many cases, producing near verbatim transcripts of the lecture), when tested on conceptual understanding of the material they performed worse than their longhand note taking peers.
Interestingly, this gap in achievement persisted even when students were given a week to study their notes before being tested on the material. Despite having nearly complete transcripts of the lectures, laptop note takers were unable to digest and process what they’d recorded as well as those who had taken far less notes the old fashioned way.
So what gives? Writing by hand is ungainly and slower than typing, but that could be an advantage when it comes to retention and understanding, the authors speculate. Unlike laptop note takers, who could mentally check-out during the lecture confident in their ability to capture nearly every word, longhand note takers were forced to pay attention to what was being said. They didn’t have the luxury of recording everything, and so they had to process and condense information in real time.
In general, the more verbatim a student’s notes, the lower his or her retention of the lecture material, the authors found. “It appears that students who use laptops can take notes in a fairly mindless, rote fashion, with little analysis or synthesis by the brain,” they wrote. “This kind of shallow transcription fails to promote a meaningful understanding or application of the information.”
Beware the “shallow transcription” trap — the next time you find yourself mindlessly typing up notes during a phone call or at a meeting, try trading the computer for a pen and a piece of paper. It may feel archaic and wrong at first, but go with it. Your memory will thank you later.