The importance of handwriting

In an increasingly technological world, recent years have seen computers and tablets become common learning tools, both in the classroom and at home. But are screens helping or hindering students? Some research suggests that the use of computers may not be as beneficial to learning as many people expect, for both early literacy development and general retention of learned information.

In an increasingly technological world, recent years have seen computers and tablets become common learning tools, both in the classroom and at home. But are screens helping or hindering students? Some research suggests that the use of computers may not be as beneficial to learning as many people expect, for both early literacy development and general retention of learned information.

Early literacy development

In a 2012 study, James and Engelhardt presented children who had not yet learned to read or write with a letter or shape on an index card. The children were asked to either trace the image, draw it, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in an fMRI brain scanner and shown the image again. The study found that the children who had drawn the image displayed significantly increased brain activity in the areas of the brain associated with reading and writing, while the children who traced or typed the image did not show this activation. The researchers suggested that the increased cognitive effort required to plan and execute the actions of handwriting results in deeper processing of the letter or shape, and therefore more effective learning. As such, a pencil and paper approach rather than the use of digital methods may be more beneficial to young children when learning to read.

Learning and retaining information

Handwriting is also important in the learning of older children, adolescents, and even young adults. A study by Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014) examines the effectiveness of note taking by hand versus via a laptop. University students were asked to take notes in a classroom setting, and were then tested on their factual recall and conceptual understanding after a delay. Prior research on note taking (predating the use of computers in the classroom) suggests that this method of study is effective as it allows for the processing of information as the notes are taken, as well as providing the opportunity for the notes to be reviewed at a later date.

Mueller and Oppenheimer found that while the students using laptops took more complete and detailed notes, they were more likely to record the lecture verbatim, even when instructed to paraphrase and write in their own words. This meant the information was less meaningfully processed, and resulted in lower retention of information and comparatively less understanding of the material presented. In contrast, taking notes by hand appears to be related to greater cognitive effort, as students who took notes by hand were more likely to summarise the information, and the content of their notes was more succinct and personalised. This greater cognitive processing appears to lead to increased comprehension, and in turn improved retention of the learned information.

In addition, when given the opportunity to study their notes, students with handwritten notes performed significantly better when tested than those with typed notes. Mueller and Oppenheimer suggested that this may be because the handwritten notes reminded the students of the lecture content more effectively, perhaps due to the more personalised nature of the notes. Overall, this research suggests that hand writing rather than typing notes may be more effective for both the processing and retention of information. As such, handwritten rather than digital study methods may be more effective for assisting high school and university students in remembering information for assignments, tests, and exams.

 

Further reading

James, K. H. & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1(1), 32-42.

Mueller, P. A. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 1-10.

  • Date June 23, 2016
  • Tags Dysgraphia