Why Handwriting Is Better Than Typing

Why handwriting is a much better way to take notes and why typing them is old fashioned  

It’s the start of the new academic year and one of the first things I tell my undergraduate students is to take notes by hand with paper and a pen. Some of them already do this but others peer at me over their laptop screens as if I had suggested eating light bulbs as a study strategy. It sounds old fashioned, as if it’s my personal last ditch attempt to hold back the tide of technology and preserve something pointlessly out-dated, like the penny farthing or whalebone corsets. But handwriting is a much better strategy for anyone taking notes.
This idea isn’t just a quaint idea. The physical act of handwriting, moving a pen across the page, has significant benefits over tapping a keyboard to record the same information. Researchers have shown that writing with a pen and paper uses different parts of the brain from typing. Several studies conducted in recent years support what stationery enthusiasts have known for a long time. Writing by hand increases engagement with, comprehension, and retention of information.

Benefits of Handwriting 

Writing by hand is slower, which is often seen as a problem. If we can type a lecture verbatim surely that’s better than writing notes on it on a notepad? Well, no. A recent study showed that students writing notes rather than typing understood more because writing forced them to be selective in what they took down. This extra mental step helped them engage and remember the material better than those who just typed it all out, despite the latter having taken far more notes. This was true in tests immediately after the lecture and when subjects were tested a week later.
Learning by rote c. 1905
Laptop note-takers

The proliferation of laptops and tablets, and widely available free wifi has encouraged us to multitask. Handwriting forces us to focus. It doesn’t tempt us to keep Facebook open in another tab and quickly check it when the lecturer takes a breath. Other studies show that students with laptops can spend 40% of class time on unrelated applications and are consequently less satisfied with their education. I’m sure something similar is true beyond the classroom too- in business meetings, for example.

Instead, handwriting makes us engage with what we’re working on. There’s no battery to worry about or pop-up notifications vying for our attention. We have to concentrate, sift and summarise. Surprisingly, laptop note-taking is a lot like learning by rote in a Victorian schoolroom.  Like laptop note-takers, Victorian children would have been able to recite dates and names, lists and times tables, but may not have been able to apply or understand the material very well.

What To Do 

Many people are reluctant to shift to handwritten note-taking because their handwriting is less beautiful than they would like. Perhaps they struggle to read it again later, or are embarrassed for others to see it. I get that. My own writing isn’t as lovely as I would like. For most people though, that can change. Regular practice will improve your handwriting as it does for most skills. Simply, the more you do it the better you will get at doing it. Conscious practice will improve it even more (I’ll talk about conscious practice another time). A useful tip for taking notes from books (rather than in lectures) is to slow down. Most of use write untidily because we rush and don’t take the time to form letters properly. You don’t have to go at a snail’s pace, but if you slow down even a little, it will help.

Also, if you use a program like Evernote to digitise your handwritten notes it will have a bash at making your scrawl searchable. It valiantly tries to make my photographs of Italian renaissance manuscripts searchable, and while I can’t say it’s mastered them, it’s unlikely your writing is less legible than the scrawl of a fifteenth-century Florentine notary!

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission at no cost to you. For example, if you follow the Evernote link, you can get a month’s Premium subscription free and if you decide to create an account, Evernote will give me a month’s Premium subscription free too.