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The Benefits Of Writing By Hand

Writing by hand, with pencil and paper, still has a place in today’s world. And we aren’t just saying that because we sell pencils; the science is there to back us up.

According to NPR, a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Psychological Science called ‘The Pen is Mightier Than The Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’ offers some very compelling evidence for taking notes by hand.

The study, conducted by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA, collected data from hundreds of students across multiple disciplines of study, controlling for a variety of factors. Mueller and Oppenheimer wanted to see if there was any benefit to taking notes via laptop over the more traditional longhand method, as it’s becoming more and more popular to do so in today’s university classrooms.

They found that students taking notes longhand performed better on tests given on the subject matter both immediately after a lecture and when the groups of students were given time to review the material. This may be due to the way we use our brains when taking notes.

When we write out notes longhand, we’re forced to do extra processing. We can’t type at the speed of speech, so we have to choose what’s most important to write down and remember. Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study argues that the extra mental processing involved here helps students better understand what they’re taking notes on than typing on a laptop.

Why is that?

According to the study, there are two types of note taking: generative and non-generative. Generative note taking requires us to map out concepts, summarize them, and paraphrase them, while non-generative note taking is copying things down verbatim. Longhand notes fall under the category of generative note taking, and notes typed on a computer are regarded as non-generative.

It may seems like the advantage would be in the second kind of note taking; after all, if you can copy down a lecture verbatim and review it after, wouldn’t you have a more complete picture of the lesson? Not necessarily, according to Mueller. In an interview with NPR, she put it this way:

"When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”

Mueller is describing what’s known as the encoding hypothesis, which states that the mental processing people have to do by taking longhand notes improves their ability to learn and retain