Handwriting Helps for Better Retention

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According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology, writing by hand, rather than with a keyboard, helps in retaining information. “Handwriting movements are included as a learning strategy, more of the brain gets stimulated, resulting in the formation of more complex neural network connectivity”.

This makes sense to me—I can type without looking at the keyboard, or even really thinking about the fact that I’m typing. Writing with a pen, though? That I have to pay attention. That’s a meaningful distinction, one that has implications for anyone who is trying to learn. Now, the paper goes out of its way to state that this doesn’t mean you should abandon your keyboard altogether—they’re just different tools for different jobs.

– Justin Pot on the Popular Science

The researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, F. R. Van der Weel and Audrey L. H. Van der Meer, concluded that using handwriting when learning stimulates our brain and improves neural network connectivity. In short, writing by hand helps us remember things better than typing on a computer keyboard.

The Norwegian study involved 36 students who wrote words using either a digital stylus or a keyboard while wearing a 256-channel sensor array. This setup allowed the researchers to observe how the brain connects, which correlates with learning and recalling things. The results showed that handwriting involved different a cognitive process in compared to typewriting.

Audrey van der Meer, a psychologist and study co-author at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told NPR, “We don’t see that [synchronized activity] in typewriting at all. She suggests that writing by hand is a neurobiologically richer process and that this richness may confer some cognitive benefits.”

In a commentary about the study in Popular Science, Justin Pot says that this similar to his own experience. Typing can be a mindless task, whereas handwriting requires more focus, which makes it a good way to learn. The study does not advocate for completely abandoning keyboards, rather, it highlights that handwriting and typing serve different purposes.

There’s actually some very important things going on during the embodied experience of writing by hand. It has important cognitive benefits.

– Ramesh Balasubramaniam, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Merced(source: NPR)

Understanding this difference helps us to improve our memory retention by using handwriting. The study suggests taking notes by hand when studying or attending meetings. Even if we write slower, we’ll likely retain information more effectively. Handwriting also helps improve eye contact in meetings and reduces distractions compared to typing.

Even in online meetings, using a tablet for note-taking is said to enhance our memory and minimize disruptions caused by typing. Even if we frequently forget tasks and appointments despite using digital tools, the study suggests keeping handwritten to-do lists and calendars.

During a meeting or lecture, it’s possible to type what you’re hearing verbatim. But often, you’re not actually processing that information — you’re just typing in the blind. If you take notes by hand, you can’t write everything down. The relative slowness of the medium forces you to process the information, writing key words or phrases and using drawing or arrows to work through ideas. You make the information your own, which helps it stick in the brain.

– van der Meer on NPR

The study reveals that, while keyboards provides speed and efficiency for tasks like drafting this blog post, handwriting provides a valuable boost to memory.

Acknowledgements: ChatGPT was used to summarize some content and prepare its first draft.

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