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Swapna Krishna

Nov 1st 2021

In Handwriting vs. Typing Notes, Pen and Paper Might Win Out

As modern technology becomes more ubiquitous and less expensive, we’re integrating it into every aspect of our daily lives. This is certainly the case in classrooms, with teachers depending more and more on technology to deliver lessons and keep track of students’ progress. Students, in turn, are more reliant on tablets and laptops for their learning, especially during the pandemic when students were receiving instruction virtually and asynchronously.

But there are questions around this kind of technology-based learning — specifically, does it impact students’ ability to learn and retain knowledge? Is there a difference in learning and retention when students use handwriting vs. typing notes? The influx of technology in the classroom has presented questions on how the human brain learns.

The Role of Tech in Teaching

It’s hard to dispute that technology affects learning in myriad ways. While technology eased some of the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it also highlighted inequality. Many outlets, including TechCrunch, reported inequitable access to the equipment, devices and broadband internet that allowed students to take advantage of remote learning. Clearly, not having access to the technology needed to receive instruction would have a drastic impact on learning.

But if students did have access to the technology they needed, or this technology was included within the classroom experience, then is there still a difference between learning through different mediums? How does handwriting vs. typing notes impact education outcomes? In a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology, a research team led by Eva Ose Askvik at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology took a close look at optimal learning within a classroom setting, and specifically at the effectiveness of handwriting vs. typing notes.

Handwriting vs. Typing Notes: Which Wins?

This isn’t the first study to examine the effectiveness of handwriting vs. typing notes. Previous studies have made clear how the human brains learns — drawing letters and taking notes longhand is more effective than typing them out, according to an earlier Frontiers in Psychology report. But the study by Askvik’s group looks at whether taking notes using a pen uses more of the brain than typing notes out, specifically in 12-year-old children. The implication is that if more of the brain is used, learning is more effective.

According to Science News for Students, taking notes longhand is more involved because it involves thinking about and producing the shape of each individual letter, retrieving memories of what the letters look like, controlling our hands when writing and watching the shape of each letter take form. When you type things out, you’re simply hitting keys on a keyboard. Your brain isn’t forced to engage in the same way.

Researchers asked 12 adults and 12 seventh-graders to use cursive handwriting to take notes with a digital pen, and then to type the same notes out with a keyboard. The team recorded participants’ brain waves, taking note of which areas of the brain were activated at any given time.

The results of the study were clear: For the most effective learning and remembering, it was better for students to write or draw by hand versus typing out notes. The researchers deduced this because writing and drawing activated areas of the brain that typing didn’t. And it’s important to note that both adult and kid brains delivered similar results.

Digital Without the Downsides

That’s not to say that the study’s authors advocate for banning tech tools in the classroom — after all, the study was performed with digital handwriting. Rather, they make clear that teachers and instructors shouldn’t preference one method over all others.

Some schools are replacing handwriting with typing, and the study’s authors don’t recommend that kind of singular approach.

“It is important to ensure that handwriting practice remains a central activity in early letter learning, regardless if this occurs with a stylus and tablet or traditional paper and pencil,” the researchers note in the paper.

Technology isn’t in and of itself a bad thing — but using a mix of methods might be the best match for how the human brain learns. The study’s authors suggest varying the ways students take notes — incorporating handwriting, drawing and typing — to ensure that learners remain stimulated and engaged, committing material to memory as much as possible.

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