Research shows students who use longhand remember more and have a deeper understanding of the material. Taking notes on laptops reduces brain power by 25 percent, hinders learning.
- Study suggests that taking notes on paper induces stronger brain activity and aides in higher retention.
- A comparative study detailing the functioning of the brain in writing vs typing, which should students go for?
- How writing on paper could aid in art, composing music, or other creative works.
- Should you switch to the ‘traditional’ form of writing and making notes on paper even in this digital era?
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, young children and university students are forced to learn on screens. Apart from causing fatigue, physical and mental exhaustion, the time they spent studying on laptops, tablets, and smartphones is reducing their brainpower. A recent study suggests taking notes on digital devices hinders learning and retention as compared to taking notes with pen and paper.
Physical or Digital?
A team of Japanese researchers has found that students who take their notes on paper notebooks have stronger brain activity, conceptual comprehension, synthesizing capabilities, and learn more than the students who use computers or mobiles to take their notes. Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing on a paper is likely what leads to improved memory.
“Actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall,” said professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo and corresponding author of the research recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The remarkable part of the study is that students who took notes on paper notebooks finished the retrieval task about 25% faster than the ones who used digital devices. Digital is supposed to be faster, more efficient, and organized but it wasn’t.
According to the researchers, paper notebooks allow for tangible permanence, irregular strokes, and uneven shape, like folded corners. In contrast, digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the application. Moreover, writing on paper involves more of our whole minds— and that aids retention.
“This is probably because there are more things imprinted with memory, like the places where the letters were written and the sensations of touching as well as the times. Electronic devices aren’t bulky and are handy for research and other purposes, but I think paper notebooks are more useful for thinking and generating creative ideas,” said Sakai.
Watch: Typing vs Handwriting: Which Is Better for Your Memory?
The Study: Writing Vs Typing
For the study, 48 students aged 18-29 were divided into three groups: users of paper notebooks, tablet users, and users of smartphones. After the students read a fictional conversation between characters discussing their plans for the next two months (including 14 different class times, assignment due dates and personal appointments), they recorded the fictional schedule using a paper date book and pen, a tablet (with a calendar application) and a stylus, and a large smartphone (again with a calendar application) and a touch-screen keyboard.
After an hour, students were asked to answer a range of simple and complex multiple-choice questions to test their memory of the schedule. Interestingly, students who used a paper datebook took 11 minutes to record the schedule; tablet users took 14 minutes; and smartphone users took about 16 minutes.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with the students, researchers identified that our brains are accustomed to learning in specific ways. For example, students who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization, and in the hippocampus—an area known to be important for memory and navigation. Researchers say that the activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind’s eye.
“Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin,” Sakai explained.
Should you switch to writing over typing?
The precisely controlled movements and cognitive efforts required by writing by hand activate brain’s patterns related to learning and better enable the brain to encode new information. No such activation patterns are found when using a keyboard. In conclusion, the researchers say, writing by hand makes students better at learning and memorizing.
“It is reasonable that one’s creativity will likely become more fruitful if prior knowledge is stored with stronger learning and more precisely retrieved from memory. For art, composing music, or other creative works, I would emphasize the use of paper instead of digital methods. Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize,” said Sakai.
In a 2020 study, Dutch neuroscientist professor Audrye van der Meer of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology also found that the act of putting pen to paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. “A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sensory experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better,” she said.
While typing notes on a screen does have its benefits and digital learning is important, taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes do have consequences for learning. A 2014 Princeton University study also concluded: “Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting”, and these efforts foster comprehension and retention. By contrast, when typing students can easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning, as faster typing speeds allow students to transcribe a lecture word for word without devoting much thought to the content.”