The Top 5 Reasons You Should Be Taking Notes by Hand
Written By: Claire Brown
This week, my copywriting journey has consisted of practice, practice, and more practice. I’ve been reading and researching copy written by some of the greats as well as beginning to dive into the world of SEO. My goal for now is to take in AS MUCH copy as I can handle. And I’ve been doing something that sounds a little crazy:
I’ve been copying some high-quality blog posts by hand.
Yep, you read that right. I’ve been taking ENTIRE blog posts (we’re talking 1,000+ words here folks) and copying them by hand. It sounds a little sketchy, I know, but since it’s just for practice, I’m all set legally.
So now, if you have any sort of sanity, you’re likely asking yourself why in the HECK I would spend hours copying other blogs by hand. Honestly, about halfway through each blog (and in the middle of some serious hand cramping), I was asking myself the same question. But I’m doing it because I trust that it’ll all be worth it. You see, time and time again, research has shown that copying something down by hand is the best way to learn that something.
Don’t believe me? Type “benefits of handwriting” into Google Scholar. You’ll get over 75,000 results on the topic in less than a second.
You may be wondering why this is such a hot topic, but think about where you’re reading this very blog post. Likely, you’re on a computer, tablet, or phone (if you’re reading a printed-out copy please contact me and let me know because I would be very interested to hear about that!). We live in a digital age. Laptops and tablets have been common note-taking devices in colleges for years, and now they are becoming more and more common in grade schools. In a post-COVID-19 pandemic world, we’re seeing a switch to online and digital learning like never before.
As we delve further into the tech age, the question of the “best” way to take notes and learn information becomes more and more relevant. Are handwritten notes here to stay? Research seems to suggest yes.
And here are the top five reasons why you should be taking your notes by hand:
- Writing notes by hand improves your memory
- Writing notes by hand improves your cognition
- Writing notes by hand helps you form ideas quicker
- Writing notes by hand improves your writing skills
- Writing notes by hand minimizes distractions
Keep reading for a detailed look into why these 5 reasons matter so much.
1. Writing Notes by Hand Improves Your Memory
“Hang on a second while I write that note down. If I don’t write it, I’ll forget it!” Have you ever said those words? If so, you’re more correct than you might realize. In fact, a group of researchers at Princeton University would be inclined to agree with you.
In a study conducted at Princeton, a group of students watched TED Talk lectures and took notes on the lecture either by hand or with a laptop. Afterwards, they took a test on the lecture that included both straight recall questions and open-ended application questions. The students in both groups did about the same when answering the recall questions. But the students who took notes by hand did a much better job of answering the open-ended application questions.1
This is likely because of an effect known as the “encoding hypothesis” which says that the physical act of writing notes by hand activates multiple parts of the brain, leading to better memory and learning.
2. Writing Notes by Hand Improves Your Cognition
Memory and cognition are like best friends. Even though they’re not the exact same thing, they’re very similar, and they go hand-in-hand. Cognition has to do with how well you understand something. And like memory, research has shown that our cognition is usually better when we write something down by hand.
This is even true in little kids!
Some researchers in France tested how well children recognized letters after copying the letters by hand or typing them on a computer. The children who hand wrote the letters showed a much higher amount of recognition compared to the children who typed the letters.2
Researchers often contribute improved memory and improved cognition to the same thing: the physical act of writing letters or words stimulates multiple parts of the brain, many more parts than the act of typing. All those parts of your brain are reactivated every time you try to remember or understand what you’ve written. And the more of your brain you use at once, the “deeper” you are learning!
3. Writing Notes by Hand Helps You Form Ideas Quicker
Have you ever tried to write a paper in a noisy environment? I write all the time, and let me tell you, to be productive, I have to have one of two conditions:
- Complete silence
- Instrumental music playing QUIETLY in the background
If I can hear other words, I usually start writing those down instead of the ones I’m trying to think of! Chances are, you’re pretty similar to me. That’s because we as humans have something called “working memory” which is a temporary memory bank that our mind draws from as we are thinking in the moment.3 It’s kind of like our brain’s version of autosave, except our brain’s autosave storage capacity is severely lacking compared to your typical word processor.
When you first start to write by hand, most of your working memory is filled with the shapes of the letters themselves. That’s why, if you ever read something you wrote in kindergarten, it’s probably made up of short little sentences like “I like dogs.” or “The sun is hot.” It took so much of your brain power to actually form the letters that you didn’t have much room for other things like coming up with complex ideas, choosing fancy words, or making your sentences long and flowing.
As you get older, your memory bank doesn’t need to be full of the shapes of letters anymore. That’s all in “long-term storage.” Now, you have room to fill your memory bank with more complex ideas, bigger words, and longer strings of words. But, without first having your bank full of letters, you can’t move onto filling your bank with these more complex ideas.
If you have more ideas (and less basic letters) in your memory bank, it’s easier for you to pull those ideas out and use them. This means you’ll spend less time thinking about what you want to say. And you’ll be able to get your ideas down on paper much quicker.
4. Writing Notes by Hand Improves Your Writing Skills
I consider myself a good typist. I started taking keyboarding classes when I was in the third grade. And I LOVED keyboarding class. Probably because I was pretty lacking in the athletics department, so I thought being good at keyboarding made me “cool” (hint: it didn’t). But the American keyboard is pretty easy to use.
Imagine that you have to write on a Chinese typewriter. You know Chinese and can speak it fluently, so it shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Wrong. You see, the Chinese typewriter has about 6,000 characters. Skilled typists can type about 11 characters per minute. (To put it in perspective, the average American typist punches out 190-200 characters per minute4).
So what happens to your ideas as you hunt down each character you need? Likely, since all of your focus is on looking for the characters, your ideas slip out of your memory bank.
For children, the act of physically writing is this demanding. But, as they practice handwriting and their skills develop, the physical act of writing becomes easier and easier. This makes way for deeper thinking and better ideas5.
You can’t skip steps, though. Your brain won’t begin forming better ideas at a younger age if you replace handwriting with keyboarding. In fact, your brain won’t ever begin forming those better ideas because these very special connections, called “neural pathways” have to form in the brain as you learn. Without creating these connections, your brain doesn’t grow and develop in the correct way, and you likely will have a difficult time writing quality work.
5. Writing Notes by Hand Minimizes Distractions
You’re sitting in class or in a meeting with your laptop open. The speaker is about to begin, you have your word processor open to take notes, you’ve even got a fancy heading recording all of the information about that day (time, date, location, name of speaker, you’ve got it all!). Two minutes before the presentation is about to start, you get a pop-up on your screen:
“You have a new Facebook message from *your best friend*! CLICK HERE to read!”
You check your watch. A minute and a half left? That’s plenty of time. And so you click. It’s a picture of your best friend’s new puppy. Adorable! You type a quick reply…and then click on her page to see if she’s posted any more pictures. The speaker is at the front of the room now, but he’s just introducing himself and you already know who he is. You let yourself scroll a little.
An hour later, everyone in the room is clapping. You’re still scrolling. Embarrassed, you quickly join the applause, close your Facebook tab, and delete your still-blank-except-for-the-heading document you were ready to take notes on.
Does this sound familiar?
We live in the age of multitasking. We listen to music while we work. We eat while we drive. We drink our coffee while we walk to work in the morning (well, I’m told people do that…my commute consists of a whopping 30 steps from my bedroom to my home office). Multitasking has many benefits and definitely has its place in helping us do several menial tasks at once.
But there is also a time to stop multitasking. When we are trying to learn something new whether it’s new information or a new task, multitasking decreases our ability to focus on the new. We are likely to miss key information needed to activate deep learning in our brains.
Taking notes with a pencil on paper greatly reduces the amount of distractions around you. This is especially true if you are disciplined enough to put your phone away at the same time. With distractions gone, you’re free to focus on the new information you’re receiving, and studies show that you’re much more likely to remember that information than your distracted peers.6
Are we past the point of no return?
In this post-pandemic world, we’ve seen a HUGE increase in work-from-home and distance learning. This reliance on technology has also seen a rise in digital note taking. We’re close to teetering over the edge, but I don’t think we’re quite there.
Not quite yet.
Pen and paper have their work cut out for them in the battle to hold the title of favorite note-taking method. But it seems that science is on their side.
- Mueller, P.A. & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Sage Journals, 25(6), 1159-1168. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797614524581. doi: 10.1177/0956797614524581
- Smoker, T.J., Murphy, C.E. & Rockwell, A.K. (2009). Comparing Memory for Handwriting Versus Typing. Sage Journals, 53(22), 1744-1747. Retrieved from: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/154193120905302218. doi: 10.1177/154193120905302218
- Berninger, V.W. (2012). Strengthening the Mind’s Eye: The Case For Continued Handwriting Instruction in the 21st Century. National Association of Elementary School Principals, May/June 2012, 28-31. Retrieved from: https://teachme2read.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/berninger-minds_eye_handwriting_2012.pdf.
- Free Typing Test – Check Your Typing Speed in 60 Seconds: LiveChat Tools. LiveChat. (n.d.). https://www.livechat.com/typing-speed-test/#/.
- Graham, S. (2009-2010). Want to Improve Children’s Writing? Don’t Neglect Their Handwriting. American Educator, Winter 2009-2010, 20-28. Retrieved from: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/graham.pdf.
- Kay, R. & Lauricella, S. (2011). Exploring the Benefits and Challenges of Using Laptop Computers in Higher Education Classrooms: A Formative Analysis. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La Revue Canadienne de Lâ Apprentissage et de la Technologie, 37(1). Retrieved from: https://www.learntechlib.org/p/42756/. e-ISSN: 1499-6677