Science has provided a definitive answer for the handwritten notes vs. digital notes debate – handwritten notes improve your memory.
Seeing students or people at work with device in hand, in class or meetings, isn’t unusual.
If anything, with the increased use and convenience offered up by technology, it’s the norm these days to type up your notes and to-dos.
But how effective is this for learning, compared to “old-fashioned” methods like handwritten notes?
It turns out, cognitive scientists have an answer for this.
Although typing up your notes takes less time, handwritten notes improve your memory.
Let’s take a look at how neuroscience explains this phenomenon.
5 Things You Need to Know About How Handwritten Notes Improve Your Memory
1. Overlap and Understanding
Scientists found that students who typed up notes compared to those who wrote them by hand churned out a greater volume of notes.
Which is great for dense topics and classes jam-packed with information – but there’s a catch.
Those who typed up their notes tended to input information ad verbatim or word for word.
Typically, this linked to poorer retention of information.
Comparatively, those who went at it with pen and paper, although producing a smaller volume of notes, retained information better.
Because writing is slower than typing, these learners had to listen, process, and then summarize the information in their own words, with their own understanding, as they wrote it down.
Handwritten notes improve your memory because learners are engaging with or handling the information more.
And as a result, because they’re processing it into their own words with their own understanding, they have better short-term recall of the material.
2. Fewer Distractions
The pen and paper route offers minimal distractions.
Using a laptop or tablet, on the other hand, can actually damage your information retention.
Your device isn’t exclusively for taking notes or studying, after all.
How many times have you sat in a two-hour lecture, and casually clicked into social media for a cursory browse through your timeline or feed?
Or spent some time wandering around Pinterest or Instagram?
There are ways you can switch off distracting apps when it’s time to study, but how effective this is, is ultimately down to your willpower.
Sometimes, the temptation to catch a little break in class is too much to resist.
And when you’re using a laptop or other digital device to take notes, it may easily distract you.
And though it may seem harmless to sneak a quick peek at your messages, you might actually be damaging your retention of information.
One experiment in a workspace has found that once you lose focus from the task at hand, it can take you over 20 minutes for your brain to refocus.
Research, meanwhile, shows that students who use digital devices in class are likely to use them for non-class related things 40% of the time.
This means you’re likely not retaining very much of what is happening in class.
And although you may be taking down what your professor is saying, it’s a more superficial record of information.
On the other hand, when you are physically taking handwritten notes, you improve memory because there are no distractions to tempt you.
Furthermore, you have to listen attentively to convert the information you hear to words on paper.
Your brain is working to understand and retain the information better.
This is another reason why handwritten notes improve your memory.
3. Better Exam Scores
Although digital note-takers can take more notes, quality matters over quantity.
On average, neuroscientists concluded that those who take handwritten notes are more likely to score better when they write notes down.
Again, it comes down to how handwritten notes improve memory.
Yes, you might be going slower.
But slightly slower means you’re allowing your brain more time to absorb information.
This is better than automatically recording what you hear in class, and not really thinking about it.
4. Conceptual vs. Factual Learning
Of course, neither these findings nor the neuroscientists who present them are saying digital note-taking is bad.
It depends on the type of learning you’re doing.
For in-depth learning, which requires a deeper understanding of the material, handwritten notes are better for all the reasons you’ve read about above.
This is conceptual learning.
For factual learning, which doesn’t require as much in-depth comprehension, you can use digital note-taking.
5. Legibility and Speed Concerns
You might be skeptical about how effective handwritten notes can be because of your handwriting.
If you tend to have difficulty reading your handwriting, or are a slow writer, there are ways you can still glean the benefits of handwritten notes.
For starters, you can take notes in two stages.
If you type faster than you write and you’re covering a lot of ground in class, you can initially type up your notes.
Then, when you finish with class, convert them into handwritten notes that boost your understanding!
You can then go slow and make sure you’re thorough and neat for your complete set of notes.
Plus, going over the information you covered in class as you review and write, improves your memory through retrieval.
This is the process whereby your brain recalls information it has stored, an exercise that builds up the neural pathways involved with that memory.
In turn, this makes the memory of that information stronger!
And if you’re having trouble reading your handwriting?
Practice, my friends!
It’s never too late to polish up your handwriting – in fact, your brain will thank you for it!
Physically writing letters and words down is scientifically proven to improve learning.
It’s one of the basics of learning phonics and phonological awareness.
In other words, your ability to distinguish the sounds that make up words and convert them to corresponding letters and letter groups, and vice versa.
Studies show that as opposed to typing your notes, more parts of your brain are active when you write.
By polishing up the association between certain letters to specific motor skills, you are not only improving your handwriting but also developing your brain!
The brain’s plasticity (neuroplasticity) makes it extremely adaptable to new knowledge.
This includes new or improved skills, like handwriting.
As you work on and improve your note-taking, your brain develops the associated neurons and builds up your brain’s muscle mass.
Not only is that great for the next time you sit a timed exam with lots of questions to answer, but it also improves memory and cognitive functioning by exercising your brain!
Just as learning is more effective when you’re reading from a physical page, writing is more effective as handwritten notes improve memory.
Digital notes have their place, depending on the situation.
Neuroscience, meanwhile, shows all the benefits for comprehension and memory when you hold a pen and write.
As you can see – handwritten notes improve your memory!
So, are you more of a pen and paper person, or do you prefer your keyboard instead?
And if you’re the latter, are you considering handwritten notes to improve memory, after reading this article?
I want to know your thoughts!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert. For over 30 years she’s taught people how to learn faster, including people in corporations like Microsoft and Raychem, medical students and staff; teachers, parents and students of all ages.
She gives the Career 2.0 and Learning 2.0 Brain Advantage Learning Assessments to clients in countries worldwide to help them identify their strengths and improve any areas they choose in order to achieve their goals.
Pat’s a mom, golden retriever lover and the author of more than 15 best-selling books including, Amazing Grades, Smarter Squared and The One-Minute Gratitude Journal: For the Moments That Matter.
Her mission is ensuring that you become a successful, life-long learner. Take the FREE Learning Styles Quiz at HowtoLearn.com. Check out her course, How to Learn Anything 100% Faster!