Use a Pen, not a Keyboard: How Writing by Hand Makes You Smarter
Students of the world put those laptops away. It turns out that your technological devices might be doing more harm than good.
Nowadays, we're surrounded by instant messaging and social networking, and while we might jot down a few words on a scrap of paper or sign our names at the bottom of a printed document, we're spending less time actually writing things down in full.
Think about it: when was the last time you wrote a letter by hand? Odds are that it was a long time ago, probably when you were a kid and you were asked to write a thank you letter to an elderly relative. Now ask yourself when you last sent an email. If you're like most people, you sent a fair few in the last couple of days alone.
What the studies say
The art of writing by hand is starting to die out, and even the classroom isn't safe as is evidenced by the growing adoption of smart devices during lessons. But scientists are increasingly concerned by the way that our brains might be changing due to the amount of time we spend using these devices.
“Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills,” explains Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva. Meanwhile, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenhemier of UCLA carried out a study to see how note-taking by hand differed from taking notes on a laptop.
“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,” Mueller explained. “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 benefitted them.”
What does this mean for students?
Taking notes is already an obvious way to boost your academic performance, but it turns out that the very act of writing something on a piece of note paper has a powerful effect on our brains which makes us more likely to remember it.
Still, while it's important to take notes when you're studying, it's not the only option available to you. Different people work in different ways, which is why handwriting notes during lectures will help one student but not another. Some are more hands-on learners, and these people usually get more from trying to actually do something than from taking notes in the process.
There's also the fact that the internet is changing the way that our brains work. As a species, we're forgetting information but learning skills that can help us to find it. There's no need to memorize long lists of presidents or iconic dates when you can simply run a Google search to find that same information.
Ultimately, laptop computers have their place, and so do handwritten notes. Many students find that the best option is a mixture of both, often taking handwritten notes during a lecture and then typing them up and expanding upon them when they get home.
Either way, taking notes on a laptop is better than taking no notes at all, so experiment with different formats to see what works best for you. And if you're looking for a compromise, consider taking notes on a tablet computer using a stylus. That way, you can write by hand and draw doodles while still storing your notes in the cloud. It's win/win.
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