Unveiling the Duel: Handwritten vs. Typed Notes

Handwriting notes has been consistently shown to promote better learning, memory retention, and information recall compared to typing, as it engages the brain more actively in the encoding process, facilitating improved connectivity across brain regions and ultimately enhancing academic performance.

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By Sophia Jin

While sitting in class, you may notice your neighbor pulling out their laptop to take notes, while you take out a notebook. In a world where digital technology often overpowers traditional tools, you might wonder, “should I be typing up my notes, too?” However, research shows that students who take notes by hand retain the material better than those who type up notes.

Technology-based note-taking offers a swift and effective method to document information. Individuals find it more convenient to organize notes and share information with peers, as everything is stored digitally. Computers automatically save your notes and keep them safe, eliminating the hassle of organizing physical papers. When handwriting notes, keeping up with the lecturer’s speech can be challenging, making it possible to miss information. Moreover, locating particular information within handwritten notes in notebooks or on loose-leaf paper can be difficult, whereas digital files allow for quick access to information. However, despite the convenience of technology-based note-taking, the effectiveness of handwritten notes in enhancing learning outcomes has become increasingly apparent through research.

Concerns about how modern technology might influence note-taking habits arose in the 1970s, which led many researchers to work towards finding an answer. Norwegian University of Science and Technology scientists Audrey van der Meer and Ruud van der Weel implanted electrodes in a hairnet equipped with 256 sensors to monitor the brain activity of 36 students. They studied the results with an electroencephalogram (EEG), where small metal discs known as electrodes are placed on the scalp. These electrodes detect tiny electrical charges generated by brain cells, which remain active all the time, even during sleep. The resulting activity is represented as wavy lines on a graph and allows scientists to observe an individual's brain activity. Analysis of the graph can help reveal information about brain connectivity, which is the way different regions of the brain communicate and interact with each other. The neural regions tested in the study included the parietal area, responsible for receiving sensory information, and the central area, responsible for the perception of the brain. Both of these brain areas play roles in attentional mechanisms and cognitive processes involved in visual perception. These students were tasked with either writing or typing 15 words from the game Pictionary. When students wrote the words by hand, sensors detected vast connectivity across numerous brain regions. In contrast, typing resulted in minimal or no activity in these same areas. Handwriting triggered brain connectivity that extended across the parietal and central cortex, both responsible for receiving and processing sensory information. Researchers concluded that writing by hand can actually help your brain connect information across different regions, which might make it easier to remember things when you're studying. The scientists theorized that students take notes by hand, the increased difficulty of writing everything down forces students to actively listen and prioritize the most significant concepts to process. 

The study conducted by Meer and Weel involved a relatively small sample of students, meaning it may be inappropriate to extrapolate their results to the general population. Cognitive psychologists Mueller and Oppenheimer conducted a study with a larger sample size, investigating the impact of typing versus handwriting notes on information processing and retention. They randomly selected participants from the Princeton University subject pool, totaling 67 students. Participants were asked to enter a room, two at a time, and were provided with either a laptop or a notebook to take notes on a 15 minute TED talk. The study used five different TED talks to ensure result consistency. After the lecture concluded, the participants were asked both factual-recall questions and conceptual application questions. The results indicated that on factual-recall questions, both laptop users and notebook users performed equally well. However, on conceptual application questions, laptop users performed significantly worse and experienced difficulties in retaining information. The researchers found that typed notes had an average of 14.6% verbatim overlap with the lecture, while handwritten notes averaged only 8.8%. Seeing how many three-word chunks of text matched the words in the lecture transcript measured the percentage for verbatim overlap. They concluded that individuals with less verbatim overlap with the lecture performed better because those who handwrite their notes tend to have better comprehension and retention of information compared to those who type their notes.

The process of memory development is split up into three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding refers to the process of converting sensory input into a form that can be stored in memory for future use. Taking notes by hand promotes active engagement, aiding in more effective encoding of information through mental processing and rephrasing. This deeper engagement strengthens connections between new and existing knowledge, contributing to better long-term memory retention. Retrieving handwritten notes is often easier due to the cognitive effort involved during encoding and the mental organization of the notes, which act as memory aids. Unlike typing, writing actively engages the brain in the note-taking process. Research shows that handwriting is linked to effective memory recall. In a study done by Frontiers in Psychology, scientists monitored brain activity using EEG on note-takers and concluded that students who write by hand have higher levels of electrical activity in the prefrontal and visual cortexes, which are in charge of sensory processing and memory. 

Recently, researchers from Princeton and the University of California, Los Angeles had students write down information in class about different topics such as bats, bread, algorithms, faith, and economics. Later, the students were asked questions to see how well they remembered specific details, understood the main ideas, and could put the information together to make broader points. The study revealed a clear positive correlation between handwriting notes and retaining them in memory. The research concluded that students who digitally take notes tended to write down more information. However, they remembered less of what they wrote down compared to students who took notes by hand.

Students might opt for handwriting notes instead of typing them, as indicated by various findings, which will likely benefit them when exams approach. Handwriting notes aid in better learning since it demands active engagement compared to just copying down verbatim. Handwriting facilitates learning, memory retention, and information recall more effectively than digital note-taking. Next time you observe a friend opening a Google Document to take notes, consider suggesting they use a pencil and paper instead.