paper and pen

Summer is winding down in my neck of the woods, where I am back at work getting ready for a new school year. As I sit at my desk today prepping syllabi and selecting readings, I am thinking about an essay I posted here about a year and half ago about memory processes (Memory: It’s all good). Turns out the essay provoked a bit of blog-o-sphere controversy. In it I stated, among other things, that writing by hand yields greater memorial outcomes than does typing. That is, if your aim in studying is to deeply process the material you should paraphrase and record the information with pen and paper, not with keystrokes. Typing, I said then, is an automatic process that stimulates little thought, whereas writing is an episodic process that engages your semantic memory system more deeply.

That portion of my memory essay caught the attention of a couple of bloggers (Taking Note and Welcome to Sherwood) who write about note taking themselves, where they quoted my text and dismissed it off-hand. Who am I, they asked their readers, and what do I know? Had they read further on my blog they would have learned that I do have adequate credentials to make sound, empirically based recommendations on effective study habits though, something I posted in their comment sections and they responded to in kind.

The Science of Handwriting

So why am I thinking about this debate today? It came to mind today as I read a recently published article in Scientific American Mind on the science of handwriting. In the article the author reports on several different programs of research examining the variation in cognitive processing occurring in different modes of cognitive engagement, specifically comparing writing to keystroking. Both behavioral and neuroscience data are accumulating and converging: when it comes to learning and memory not all forms of language production are created equally. When you consider this statement through the theoretical lens of embodied cognition, this statement makes great sense.

At a broad level, both typing and writing are motor behaviors – behaviors regulated by cell assemblies in the motor cortex that connect with other networks such as language comprehension and semantics. At a deeper level of analysis though, writing and typing differ quite a bit both physically and perceptually. Not only do your hands move differently when typing and writing, but perceptually you must engage differently to keep the processes moving along. When you are typing, perceptually each letter looks the same each and every time you stroke the key, so perceptually you can disengage. Not so when writing though. Think for a moment about this.

Typing. You gaze at a screen and your fingers shift and press in the periphery. You see uniform letters appear on the screen. You may or may not be thinking about those letters and words. Your hands just fly around the keyboard and you can think about something else. Perceptually your hands and mind are only loosely connected.

Writing. Your gaze, thoughts and hands are perceptually and cognitively linked. The word (or phrase or idea) is in your mind and you watch your hands as they subtly shift, swirl, drag, dot, and cross marks on the page, gradually revealing the word. Each letter requires practiced and deliberate shaping, and each time a letter is shaped, it is subtly different then the time before, yet your eyes note and recognize each subtly different scrawl as an instance of the same grapheme. As you watch your hands draw the letters your hands and your mind are connected with what you know and/or with what you are trying to learn. Your mind and body are tightly connected.

In both cases thought and language production occur. But only in the latter case are thought and language deeply linked. Forty-plus years of empirical work in memory and discourse processing support the statement that the writing exercise illustrated here is rich with “encoding specificity,” that is, rich with detail that can serve as cues for later memory retrieval.

Indeed, the reflection exercise here illustrates what the emerging neuroscience research reveals: deeper cognitive engagement shows up on the brain scans when research participants write compared to when they type. And behavioral evidence suggests that memory traces for what’s been written are longer lasting than for what’s been typed. These patterns are particularly pronounced for children, who are not yet adept at writing nor at typing.

Don’t forget to write4th grd computer lab

Computers are here to stay and students do need to learn keyboarding skills so they are prepared for what’s to come as they near entry into the workforce. But handwriting should not be replaced by keyboarding. It’s becoming quite clear that students need to learn both. Handwriting affords deeper memory, whereas typing affords cleaner, faster, copy. For language learners, handwriting should come first.

If you are preparing yourself for this coming school year, do yourself a favor and don’t forget to write. Invest in paper, pens, and pencils and leave your laptop in your backpack when in class. Write your notes longhand, write your essay outlines on paper (I prefer to use a pencil for this, so I can erase), and then switch to the keyboard to put it all together. Your thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum – the movement of your body is reflected in your thoughts. When all are coordinated, more is gained. And that’s all good.

Join the conversation! 175 Comments

  1. Now hold on a minute. I take exception to how you characterize my comments. I never once questioned your qualifications or implied that you were not qualified to write about this topic. I quote my own words: “The original post contains several interesting nuggets about memory worth reading.” And, “I don’t know if her point is true that when writing by hand you are ‘actively using your semantic memory too, thus writing serves as a dual-coding exercise.’ Perhaps it is.” That is hardly dismissing you article “off-hand,” as you assert. The purpose of my post was to make the point that using a computer and note-taking software PROPERLY can be a very useful way to study and learn. If you just treat note-taking as transcription of what is presented in class or out of a book, then I fully accept your premise that hand-writing the notes helps you remember them better. But that is not the type of note-taking I’m referring to in my blog article. I’m talking about building sophisticated note databases, where the notes relate to one another. I’m talking about paraphrasing material into your own thoughts about the subject. My assertion is that software on a computer can facilitate that work, and that is good work to do if you want to learn.

    Reply
    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Steve. The dismissal I refer to above is captured in your statement “I have an issue with the same assertion Manfred does. The author writes…” and then you present the same block quote from my text that Manfred did. As I recall from that exchange, I do realize that it was Manfred, and not you, who directly questioned my credentials, but you did throw your hat in the same ring with your comments and in my post above I was trying to streamline my debate-commentary to stick with the main point of both my posts — writing serves learners better when the aim is to embed the information in mind.

      If your aims differ from that, for example if you need to synthesize copious information and make that information usable, then as you state in your post, software programs exist that can streamline such a process. I would never recommend that a college students use such a program though, as “fun to use” is not the same as “effective for learning.” Hand writing does indeed take longer, but the pay off is clear: the research I summarized today is showing that writing has the advantage over typing because of the neurological and cognitive processing differences therein.

      In the end of your post you imply that you wish such programs were around when you were in college, but I would encourage you to re-frame that sentiment: you should count yourself lucky that computers weren’t around when you were in college because all that hand writing quite likely did you a favor in terms of establishing the knowledge base that you now draw from. As you say yourself too, there’s a time and a place for computing, but we have to remember that there’s a time and a place for writing too – and writing needs to stay in schools.

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  2. Taking notes in class and from texts by hand served me well in school. By writing it all down and paraphrasing it in writing, I committed much of it to memory. I find that typing is much more mechanical, especially with spell check. The data seem to apply to my experience.

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  3. This inspired me to hand write! Thinking maybe I will handwrite a blog post (then type it out) and see what happens. I tend to barf out words when I type on the computer. Thanks for the post and congrats on being FP’d!

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  4. I really enjoyed reading your post on the importance of writing, and I couldn’t agree more with you. I am not against the new age technology and the typing that goes along with it. I believe it is important we stay connected with what it happening around us today – and typing is important. But handwriting is an art that we must never forget. I wrote a similar post on the ‘era of handwriting’ almost a year ago, and I was indeed overjoyed when I came across your post today. http://shak05.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/the-era-of-handwriting/ !

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  5. Finally a rational explanation for why I horde paper and pens;) Seriously though, I focus more and remember more when I take notes by hand…everything I do for my blog gets handwritten first. It’s a wonder i get anything done, but the end result is better I think. I’m glad to know science backs me up.

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    • It is great that science backs this up – I see the same with my students all the time. When they take the time to hand write, it really pays off.

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    • Ha! I am the same. I love a good piece of paper and quality pen. I find it interesting that you handwrite everything for your blog. I have tried the same but just seem to do better typing off the top of my head. Perhaps I will try this method.

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      • Go for it! If it’s short I can type it, for the longer pieces, I have to start the outlining process on my yellow tablet. Everyone in a while I’ll start typing, but I always find that I have to go back to my pens and pencils to really organize my thoughts.

      • I will definitely try this out. I keep a journal that I hand write in all the time but I usually just type up blog posts… I’ll see how it goes!

  6. I could never revise by typing things out on a computer, has to be by hand with lots of different coloured fineliners. I’m rather proud of my fineliner collection.

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  7. I’m glad I decided to check out Freshly Pressed today!

    I read this article, and couldn’t agree more. I usually type out blog posts when I feel like being random, but hen it comes to writing assignments I give myself, like The Daily Post’s Daily Prompts, fan fiction, or original fiction, I write it out by hand.

    I find it’s a much more in-depth process, and as a writer I’m much more involved with what I’m writing than I am with typing. When I type, it feels like a chore. Writing things out feels more natural, and there is a connection between my thoughts and my hands, and it feels good to write things out through a pen and onto paper. It’s as if my thoughts are speaking aloud through my fingers.

    Thank you for this post! And I truly hope handwriting stays around, because while typing is convenient, there’s something significant about handwriting that future generations deserve to experience.

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    • I wholeheartedly agree with you! When I need to organize my thoughts nothing replaces pen and paper. When working with college seniors on starting their thesis projects one of the first things I do I get them to write their notes out on notecards and arrange those cards on the table to start the outlining processes. They’ve not done this before and their reactions are great: “wow! this actually works!” and interestingly, it doesn’t take nearly as long to get things tidied up as it does when they start composing right away on their computers.

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  8. As a college student, I always seem to remember class material better when I write it down. I’ve never felt the need to lug my computer from class to class, especially since I might be tempted to blog or check Facebook. I’m glad that when I write my notes down, I’m doing better for my grades and my brains.

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  9. Thank you for such concise information about cognition and the writing process. My mother recently had a stroke (left hemisphere) and we are working with her to regain short term memory, reading ability, writing, number recognition etc. Having read this I’ll be encouraging her to write more, as she needs all the advantages available for reengaging and for compensatory processes. Very enlightening. Thank you!

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  10. @”.. Your thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum – the movement of your body is reflected in your thoughts. When all are coordinated, more is gained. And that’s all good….”

    THIS is superb advice! I feel sometimes those from the generation behind me; they’ve LOST out on alot..Many wouldn’t agree for technology affords all of us many, many things..But there are some things that still can’t be substituted..Actually writing, and putting things down on pen /paper/or pencil…does indeed for me allow me time to “take the time” to form thoughts & I’m studying it as I write it..This has served a great purpose for when I need to study something..Versus being a speed typist/keyboarder; its too quick of a motion writing that way versus longhand format of writing it out…I wish more educators these days would teach that…2 thumbs UP

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    • Thank you bernasvibe! I agree with you that we’ve got a generation of learners who are missing a rich opportunity for deeper learning when they don’t write. I do not use “clickers” in my classes – rather I have students write their responses on actual note cards. Doing so gets them talking more than a clicker does and better yet, doing so makes it stick in their minds more too.

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  11. I’ve always written things out when needing to remember the information. Never knew there was actual science behind it. Will now go buy more spiral notebooks instead of printer paper!
    Congrats on getting pressed!!

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  12. When my 8yo son asks if he can type something on the computer, I find myself saying, ‘When I was your age we didn’t have a computer and we had to write things down on paper with a pencil…’ I’ve become that mom. But I think its really important for kids to master handwriting, even in the digital age. I agree that it is a distinctly different process.

    Great article!

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  13. All those years spent at the art table/writing center have served you well! Thanks for sharing your interesting work.

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  14. Very interesting post! I always write out my posts in pen, and then type them. My handwriting is atrocious, but I do love to write! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! :)

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    • Thank you! My handwriting differs depending on the day, but as long as I can read it, who cares? Sometimes I think its better for our brains when we work a bit harder at letter recognition, but don’t tell my students that. When they hand-write essays for exams I do ask them to remember my aging eyes and take pity on me. I am remarkably good at reading the worst kind of scrawl though.

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  15. Suppose I use pencil and paper to write a prose description of a tree. My friend uses pencil and paper to sketch the same tree. Will both approaches provide similar benefits to remembering and processing the tree?

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    • Even though words and images require slightly different neurological circuitry to craft on paper, the key to enhancing memory is coordinating your movement, perception, and your thoughts. So yes, you should both create lasting representations in mind, albeit different ones.

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  16. Don’t you think that when we type, because it is easier, more ideas can readily pop out ? I agree that hand-writing is more creative and fluid, but essentially, from my experience, we generate more deas faster because we don’t have to focus on the physically activity of writing, which is more difficult than just typing.

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    • Regarding the flow of ideas, I don’t think you get more vs. less when typing vs. writing, rather I think each endeavor differs in significant ways. I can think of a scenario where typing might be similarly coordinated as writing despite subtle differences in how your hands are moving (e.g., watching your fingers press the keys, or watching the sentence unfold on the screen). The tendency for typing to be an automatic skill though — one that can occur without much cognitive effort at all — could lend itself to then supporting a wider-ranging flow of ideas. That though is quite different from the act of organizing those ideas into a coherent set, or deeply embedding those ideas into your existing knowledge structures. Writing still has the advantage there. With that in mind, there are times when I find myself bouncing back and forth between computer and tablet, quickly typing up ideas, then putting pen to paper to organize and connect them, then going back to the computer to put together the finished product. I will even type a draft, print and write on it, then re-type it. The point being, we shouldn’t be choosing between typing and writing — there’s a time and a place for both and in this technology-crazy time we are living in, folks are forgetting about writing.

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  17. What happens when one is writing onto a touch screen, I think it’s having the paper itself to handle with the (forensic) traces of the day that aids recall.

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    • Sounds like an empirical question to me :). If you are using a stylus on a screen, then you are still shaping letters, but you are right in noting that the whole gestalt of the experience is different from paper and pen. The factors that really seem to matter most though is the coordinated embodiment of the activity. When motor movement, cognition, and perception are deeply connected and engaged, the richest memory traces are formed.

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  18. Though my school years belong to ‘once upon a time’ already for a long, but your article I have read with great interest and the applause. Yes, the handwriting affords deeper memory, whereas typing affords cleaner, faster, copy. You say that for language learners, handwriting should come first – Yes! the handwriting waked up my thinking and portrayed my being in full harmony… – I would greatly appreciate your visit to my blog arthiker and the comments there.

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  19. This is probably why I could never make the transition to typing my class notes. I always had to write everything, even in college. It just works.

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  20. I actually like to write. My teachers would even say that I have a nice handwriting, but now it’s email this or upload that. O worked hard to perfect this craft. Plus, handwriting tells me so much about you, but now…times are changing. I agree with your post. :-)

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  21. Loved this post. Completely. When I was in school I studied by copying my notes daily, and write over them in colored pens. It was quite effective. When I went to actually study for a test most of the time I found I already knew the material. Teachers now, in an effort to show they are tech savvy and cool, often encourage children to do work online because “that’s what kids like.” It’s not so effective. I had read somewhere else that the mind remembers more by hand writing. I never thought it was that controversial. It’s not that keyboarding is bad, but handwriting should be taught and encouraged. Just little things like copying down an assignment seems to make the kids remember it more and if they don’t understand it they’ll know right away. Sending the kids to the teacher’s website is not the same. And as another comment pointed out, when you send someone to the internet, there are lots of other things that could take his/her attention away — SQUIRREL — ! Wait, what?

    Same with calendars and such. Write down an event, you might remember it. Enter it in a device, maybe, maybe not.

    Cleaner, faster copy is great, though. But for editing, I encourage my children to print it out and read it, out loud, with pen in hand, to catch errors.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it, and I absolutely agree! Imagine what the world would be like if we followed the logic that “if kids like, we should let them do it” with everything? Under that rule of law, all my kid would eat would be gummi bears and nacho cheese chips! Sheesh. Finding something to be fun and finding something to be beneficial are two entirely different balls of wax.

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  22. As to getting ideas entered faster by typing? — That is so true, and very helpful. But in my experience I have to keep myself from constantly editing and worrying about form over content. I think this is where old-fashioned typewriters are the best tool. If you can type well the ideas get on paper, but since there’s no real editing, you don’t stop the flow to deal with spell check or margins or jumping to the internet to research words or concepts. You just get it out and then go back and think about it, edit, organize or throw it out.

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  23. Do you reckon that this is true and applicable as a general, blanket rule? I can’t stand writing; I feel almost dyslexic when I write the traditional way; my thoughts just don’t translate. When I type though, everything presents with greater lucidity – from the thought through to the typed word. Granted, I have the same problem when I’m typing and looking at the words on the screen. I need to focus on something going on elsewhere, on general white noise. Tis weird for people watching me – I once had a conversation with some chick who was freaked out that I was looking around (I was in a cafe) while simultaneously furiously typing away (I didn’t stop writing while talking to her either) – but it’s just how I work.

    I’m also, self assessed of course, unable to remember the stuff I write on paper, but easily able to recall typed stuff. I suppose that’s the beauty of scientific research, tis always riddled with exceptions and conditions, which only makes it more interesting.

    Interesting thoughts though. *bows* (Sorry for the long comment… which is now even longer, but this shit interests me dearly).

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    • Yes, humans are weird, which keeps things interesting. There is no such thing as a blanket rule in psychology as there is always more than one cause to any given effect. That said, using your own retrospective experience to accept or dismiss a claim is a slippery slope, even though we all do it (myself included when I am off the record). If you are really curious to know if you are an exception to the rule though, you should test yourself in a balanced way. Rope someone in to help you with this, but here’s what you would need to do. Select several passages of information to learn and split the set in half, keeping each passage roughly equal in terms of length and complexity. Study half the material by typing paraphrased notes and the other half by handwriting paraphrased notes, counterbalancing the order in which you do so. Then test yourself on the material — this is where a friend comes in. Your friend will need to create and administer the test. Only then can you know for sure which condition yields better retention. If you do this, let me know how it goes.

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  24. I never take my computer to class simply because it is too distracting. Writing is the way to go!

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  25. Reblogged this on Flutterby Inspirationals and commented:
    Neglect not the good stuff!

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  26. Super interesting! (And encouraging too) I always make revision notes by hand. Even though it takes longer I feel like I learn a lot better that way.

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  27. When hand-writing (I would definitely see “writing” as a more generic term) and typing are compared:

    o What is the influence of hand-writing being significantly slower (for a skilled typist), implying that a certain thought is at our attention longer?

    o Do the results depend on whether the writer internally verbalizes the text or just outputs it directly? Resp. does the probability of verbalization vary depending on whether typing or hand-writing is used?

    As an aside: I do not see sufficient support in your text for your conclusions about hand-writing as a necessity and the first stop for language learners. At a minimum, you must consider a more holistic picture, in which you may or may not be right.

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    • Hi Michael, Thanks for reading and taking the time to post your questions. It appears that you have an interest in reading the original research my post very generally summarizes, of which there are several studies. I would encourage you to seek out the bibliography of the article I cite and dig in to the details therein, where at least one study does address your first question and the study authors report that time was not the most important factor in explaining the research participant’s behavior.

      To your second question, I will answer a different way. The extensive research that has gone into establishing and updating the Working Memory Models in Cognitive Psychology, in particular the work on understanding the mechanism called the “articulatory loop,” suggests that all language production, no matter the modality, is supported by what theorists call sub-vocal articulation, which I believe is what you are calling internal verbalization. Said another way, research and theory suggest that your second question is moot — all language production situations rest on sub-vocal articulation. To ask the question a different way then, what I think you really want to know has to do with the degree to which mind and body are fully – or only loosely – connected and that, right now, is still under investigation. I encourage you to read more on embodied cognition, a perspective that is stimulating a lot of research on educational outcomes right now.

      And to your aside, all I will say is that my post is a very general summary of several different studies and not a specific research report. As I suspect you know, there is statistical error in all psychological research, but when a set of studies start to converge on similar patterns, theory building begins and that’s how science progresses. The mark of a good theory is one that stimulates more research and one that can, potentially, be falsified. With that in mind, all I will say is that studies utilizing language learners as the test subjects (re: school children) do show that those children show better retention of information they processed via handwriting as compared to keyboarding. The point of my post is to make that information known without the tedium of research design and statistics. From that scientific standpoint though, I like what I see right now in the research, and am interested to see where the research goes. It’s a relatively new “line” but one that is moving forward in earnest. More is sure to come on this.

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  28. My immediate reaction is to agree. I am an inveterate note-taker, something I perfected in graduate school. I still take hand-printed, block letter notes on almost everything. By the way, one good way to verify the difference in these two activities mind-to-hand-wise is notice how rarely we make errors when writing, while typos are frequent. Good post and interesting blog.

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  29. Really interesting stuff here. I’m curious about the cross-section between this and language learning. Recently I had an opportunity to spend 4.5 months learning Urdu, and found hand written notes laborious but I was able to really turn on the afterburners when i began to type using nastaleeq font. I’m sure there are different mechanisms at work here, because anecdotally I have found what you say above to be true. Somehow though, for the purposes of language learning, it didn’t seem to apply.

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    • This is a relatively new area of endeavor in research, so not all permutations have been tested yet, but I will offer you an alternative interpretation to your experience. It could be possible that once you “took off” with the computer BECAUSE you spent time before laboriously writing by hand. The time spent before very well may have laid the foundation for you, which is quite consistent with the research.

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  30. As an undergrad in this Sept, I thank you for this advice!

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  31. I’ve just started law school. Almost all the 1Ls at my school are forced to handwrite notes – four of the five professors in my section don’t allow the use of laptops in the classroom. One of them claimed that students sitting in front of their screens are less inclined to pay attention to class.

    I totally agree. As someone who’s taught in one-on-one and classroom settings, I know just how distracting laptops and mobile devices can be for students and how frustrating they can be for teachers. And as a student, both then and now, I can’t take notes by computer – I have to do it all by hand. I do find that I remember the material better when I handwrite notes.

    Unfortunately, some schools seem to be going in the wrong direction. My old school, where I worked as a substitute last year, has started handing out laptops to its students starting with last year’s sixth graders. The admin felt it would help them in their educations. I don’t see how playing Minecraft with your screen turned away from the teacher helps you get educated, but then I’m not a principle or anything. Tech is great, but it’s no substitute for paying attention in class.

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    • I agree with you! Giving young students a computer or electronic tablet in lieu of paper and pen is a dangerous route to take. Students do need to learn computing skills, but they need to write as well. It shouldn’t be either or.

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  32. erica….i agree 1001% with what youre saying!
    and im not just saying this to gain some kind of brownie points….
    call me what you want, but i was educated in a private school run by catholic sisters….
    i have my parents to thank for that, as dad worked day and night driving steam trains in order to earn enough cash so that we kids could have a semi-decent education.
    anyway, i digress….we were taught the old-school way…writing by hand, memorising text, etc etc.
    so where did that get me, i can hear people saying? well, just an example…not blowing my own horn or anything…wherever ive worked, even senior management have come to me for advice on how to write their reports in clear, concise english script…
    and when it came down to exams when i was a student, i even wrote down revision notes by hand….normally, students just sit and flick through their books for revision, but i was taught to write things down…only then would that info stay in my mind…and it has worked.
    so, yes, i can emphatically say what you are talking about is fact…and nothing else!
    i have nothing against typing…this comment has been typed…but writing by hand is a different animal altogether…as you rightly say….
    great post!

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  33. Congratulations making freshly pressed this is not an easy accomplishment.

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  34. i so agree, hand written things are healing :)
    congratulations on being freshly pressed.

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  35. Handwriting is screwed up so much by my sensory processing and other related issues, that typing moves me along much more quickly. It also provides me with a quick and clear copy of notes that I then read and translate into pictures. My brain chunks and places images, sounds, colors, and sometimes shapes, which then cause the text to come to me in images, or as having been orally read in my head. It rather works like a type of photographic memory. I can call up chunks of typed writing and utilize or generalize them MUCH better in this way. Typing also helps me with adding in mnemonics. I can, while reading the material after I’ve typed, add in spacing and white space in chunks containing logical relationships and assign these a symbol or other trigger. I suppose all of this sounds tedious, however it occurs in the blink of my flying 75 wpm fingers and eyes and it allows me to use my strengths and to let them shine instead of working for four hours trying to write illegible information.

    An additional thought before I go…
    Writing by hand, and doing so over and over is a rote memory function. It, alone, does not necessarily speak of how one comprehends it, generalizes it, chooses an appropriate method of output. I’m off to plant collards and beets. I am interested in reading the studies of which you speak. I shall return and do so at another time.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience and examples, Elisa. First, I suspect you already know that general principles often do not apply in the same way for folks who have, as you call them, “sensory processing issues” (I assume you have a dysgraphia of some kind?), right? Second though, is that this post is about situations where you are engaged in the process of embedding information into mind. If all you are doing is re-writing the same words over and over without thought or integration, then you are correct and that is no different from typing in a mindless fashion. But all else being equal, if you are paraphrasing and working with new information that you aim to deeply understand and use at a later time, then the research I summarize shows that hand writing has an advantage over typing. The last thing to remember is that speed of processing and depth of processing are not the same thing – you can deeply or shallowly processes when typing and when writing – many combinations are possible. And finally, I want to state too that I am glad to know that you have figured out a system that works for you and your unique capabilities. At the end of the day, that’s what matters most.

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  36. Well, I agree with you.

    Part of my job description includes transcribing from dictation. So what goes in through the ears comes out through the fingers. I have found that I can be almost completely disengaged mentally from what I am doing. I type long medical file summaries with complicated medical jargon. Not easy to spell, and I have to differentiate on the fly. While I am typing, I can be thinking about what to have for supper, what is being talked about in the next cubicle, how to schedule picking my daughter up from college. I can even creatively problem solve while typing. I can type a whole page and not realize what I just typed. When I realize what I have done, I go back to listen and look, and I have not made any more mistakes than when I am fully engaged.

    In my other secret life, I am a writer. There is a good amount of work that gets done while typing. I have to type to put it in my blog. But writing by hand brings much more emotion, creativity and thought. Also, when I change my mind while writing, I have to cross it out by hand. It is still there to look at later. When I do all my writing by computer/keyboard, when I make changes, it is as if the words were never there.

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  37. Thanks for this post. Such an inspiration :-)

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  38. So very true. Conrats on the freshly pressed, well deserved for such a thoughtful and encouraging piece which confirms something I have long known form personal experience, but didn’t have the ‘credentials’ to back up:-)

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  39. I very much agree with you. I can’t live without a pen and paper, especially when writing creatively. I find my ideas flow more freely onto paper than through a keyboard. I don’t remember much of what I type, but if I handwrite I do find I remember more. Nice to know I’m not the only one who remains “old fashioned”. ;)

    Reply
  40. Truly, writing is a great experience. I’m not the best writer but I’ve enjoyed filling my journal by hand and diligently taking notes and making reviewers by hand because it seemed to help me remember and process things more. I agree that when I type, it seems as if the process of taking in thoughts is more fleeting than writing by hand. I wish our technology now takes that into account so we don’t lose important cognitive engagements.

    Reply
  41. I always write my notes down on paper, I never trust my phone or any computer since data could easily be deleted. I like writing on notepads especially if it’s a writing idea or just I dream I had that is worth remembering.

    Reply
  42. Despite the big words in this post, I cant deny that you have a point. The way I write now doesn’t compare to the way I wrote whilst growing up. Back then, before computers even began ruling the classrooms, I could effortlessly write a piece that could reduce people to tears and reach out and touch. These days, I stare at my screen more than I write. Very frustrating. This post has opened my eyes and definitely has me wandering….

    Reply
  43. @EricaK

    And thank you for your answer.

    Regarding sub-vocal articulation: This is much wider term than my intent, including e.g. involuntary and unconscious movements. What I had my mind on was the more-or-less complete “speaking” of sentences in ones head—something which can be very hard to over-come. There are even many who naively equate this “speech” with thinking. My own subjective experience is that it can be helpful for memorising (at the cost of slowing the thinking process considerably, through the need to wait until the thought has been verbalized) and, generally, the more different ways we treat a certain piece of information, the likelier we are to remember it. Hence my question.

    Regarding the aside: I suspect that you misunderstood me. My point was not that the research would be faulty, but that there are other aspects that must be brought into consideration before making a recommendation. An obvious example is the opportunity cost of learning resp. teaching two forms of writing with very different mechanics. (I have not spent enough time on the topic to give a more complete list—let alone to tell you what the eventual verdict would be.)

    @Ann Kilter

    “But writing by hand brings much more emotion, creativity and thought.”

    This is likely to be highly individual. I, for instance, have found that my thoughts and creativity benefit from typing. This partially because typing is less effort to me, meaning that I can focus on the thoughts; partially because hand-writing is so much slower that I tend to grow frustrated, still writing thought 1 down, when I have already completed thoughts 2–x in my head. (And I probably write faster by hand than most, seeing that I tend to prioritize speed over aesthetics and readibility. The same problem is obviously present with typing, but is considerably less marked and rarely results in frustration.) As a child, being behind my age in fine-motor skills, I outright hated hand-writing (and, by childish implication, writing) and would probably have been better off typing from a motivational point of view.

    @condoexclusive

    Paper notes are just as easy to lose—and far harder to backup for restoration in case of loss.

    Reply
    • Many other folks have been discussing composition in their comments, and to that I will say that first the research has yet to be done, and when it is done, I expect that quite a bit of individual variation will be present in the data. To control such an experiment to the extent necessary to draw strong conclusions might make for a pretty artificial situation, indeed. But intent of the language production exercise is important to consider. The research I refer to in my original post is not about fresh composition, rather it thus far emphasizes comprehension and retention of to-be-learned material, and for that reason, my recommendations are fine because I am making recommendations about the same kind of situation as what was utilized in the research. I really see no opportunity cost whatsoever in teaching young children to take notes by hand; really the opportunity cost might be in taking the time to teach them keyboarding skills when their working memory capacity is still limited, developmentally (and there is some research on that, suggesting that teaching keyboarding to 5 & 6 year olds doesn’t seem to boost their language development at all). Once students’ working memory capacity (and other cognitive skills) are more mature (as they approach adolescence), then engaging them both ways might be best, but that research has yet to be done (I know of no longitudinal studies on that).

      About the sub-vocal articulation issue, it appears that we are talking about different issues, but I do have a question for you: why would you want to overcome speaking to yourself when engaged in a language related task? I am not sure what you mean by the nativity in conflating internal dialogue with thinking; theory in cognition and linguistics stemming back to Vygotsky and Luria suggests that private speech supports your thinking, it doesn’t slow it down. Neuroscience research examining the role of the articulatory loop in working memory and linguistic tasks shows that when folks’ ability to engage in sub-vocal articulation is compromised, either from localized brain damage or in an experimental situation where functioning of the articulatory loop is compromised via experimental methods (this can done in harmless ways), what you see is significant reduction in language comprehension and production and the complete inability to learn even vocabulary of a second language. In other words, when the articulatory loop doesn’t work right (meaning internal dialogue doesn’t happen), the person experiencing the problem has difficulty with language comprehension and production. In those cases, it doesn’t matter if they are typing or writing by hand.

      Lastly, I will say that there is always individual variation in human behavior. Students who have mild fine-motor-skill issues and larger issues like dysgraphia perform better when they type. That is, there’s always an exception to the rule when it comes to human behavior, and especially when that behavior is cognitive.

      Reply
      • “To control such an experiment to the extent necessary to draw strong conclusions might make for a pretty artificial situation, indeed.”

        More or less any controlled experiment is a pretty artificial situation :-)

        “The research I refer to in my original post is not about fresh composition, rather it thus far emphasizes comprehension and retention of to-be-learned material, and for that reason, my recommendations are
        fine because I am making recommendations about the same kind of situation as what was utilized in the research.”

        It would only follow that you are right with regard to one aspect. My point was rather that you have not investigated (or at least not discussed) the other aspects of the issue, resp. that making a recommendation without considering these aspects is unwise.

        “I really see no opportunity cost whatsoever in teaching young children to take notes by hand”

        Everything comes with an opportunity cost. Whether that cost is larger or smaller than what is gained is different question. Vice versa, if teaching typing is futile at a certain age, as you conjecture, this would imply that the teaching is not worth the opportunity cost—but it does not cause the opportunity cost. (Roughly speaking, the opportunity cost of alternative A is what we forego by chosing A.)

        “why would you want to overcome speaking to yourself when engaged in a language related task?”

        I did not saying anything about a language related task (except in as far as very many tasks are indirectly related to language) but spoke more in general. However, I do not see it as a given that even a language related task will benefit from “speaking to yourself”. I would even go as far as saying that it will be an at least slight hindrance more often than not.

        “I am not sure what you mean by the nativity in conflating internal dialogue with thinking; theory in cognition and linguistics stemming back to Vygotsky and Luria suggests that private speech supports your
        thinking, it doesn’t slow it down.”

        Even if it were a support, which does not match my own experiences, it would not be identical to thinking—just a verbalisation of what is thought. As for not slowing down: That is patently and obviously wrong in many areas. Consider e.g. solving Sudoko puzzles, doing math, or playing basket ball, which would be very severely hampered, even as a whole, by any significant verbalisation of thought processes. Even tasks like listening to music or doing the dishes would typically see the thinking slowed down; however, not necessarily in a way that would make it self obvious through delays in the overall task.

      • Hi Micheal,
        Your comments go quite a ways beyond the nature of the research I wrote about – as I stated before, the research is about using different language production modalities to enhance memory and grow your knowledge base. As well, your comments reflect one of the greatest challenges faced by psychological scientists, in their efforts to make their work matter (i.e., extend beyond the lab to improve the human condition). And that is that the results of research in cognitive research (and in social psych too) are often counter-intuitive. Using your own introspective experience as a litmus test (figuratively speaking) to determine whether to “buy” the research findings usually yields debates like this one and causes the “reader” to close their mind to new ideas. In my replies to you thus far, I’ve kept my answers grounded in the theory and research that current cognitive psychology rests upon. So you might not find the work in Cognitive Science on the interrelation between thought and language compelling based on your intuition, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it doesn’t resonate with your personal introspection. If you take the time to track down and read the classic text by Lev Vygotsky called “Thought and Language” or the prodigious research (20+ years worth) that supports the Working Memory Model in cognitive science, you will see that my words are not conjecture here, but a reflection of this work.

        On that note, I don’t want to digress into an argument, rather I want to provoke thought about social dilemmas we all face right now. With that in mind, I do appreciate the time you’ve taken to read and reply, and I hope that you may be willing to seek out the research and theory before you dismiss the ideas about the connection between thought and language and embodied cognition off-hand.

      • From your answers, I start to fear that you simply do not understand the points I am trying to make. This being the case, a deeper discussion is unlikely to be fruitful.

        You would do well to bear in mind, however, that research in the softer sciences is a comparatively blunt tool that can easily be misleading or wrong when the circumstances vary (in the current case e.g. because the research might have focused on tasks with a high natural verbal component or dealt too predominantly with research subjects who had never realized that they could think without words). Further, there is a risk that later readers mis- or overinterpret (for instance, many of your statements deal with a possible positive effect through verbalizing—this, however, implies nothing more than that there would be a positive effect). Notably, that thought and “spoken thought” are not the same is so far beyond doubt that you would do better to say that a tree consists of leaves or that milk products are cheese. Spoken thought is on the outside a subset of thought—possibly not even that.

        (I might add that I have in my life had periods where I thought verbally in Swedish, English, resp. German and have since developed to think mostly directly in concepts. Furthermore that I have often been involved in activities requiring thought directly in form of visualized (not verbalized!) geometry, shapes, and movements.)

        Since you seem irritated at the word “conjecture”: I stress that there is nothing wrong with conjecture and that even much of what is supported by research to various degrees is still best considered conjecture.

  44. I am so happy I stumbled into your blog. I haven’t been able to leave. So much I agree with, but this one has me just shaking my head in agreement. I’ve been worried about my 9 and 11 year old missing out on the joy of handwriting. I’ve always said to them, “Your signature tells everyone about you.” I’d decided that we’d practice all summer. I’m glad we did, too. Our schools in Texas are moving so far away from it, so I’m teaching them to write at home. I’m so thankful I had great teachers. Blessings!

    Reply
  45. Great article. My only evidence is anecdotal. I am different when I handwrite in my journal, a different quality to the experience. When I computer compose for other text assignments, the experience is feeling I am doing data input. Less visceral. Enjoyed the post.

    Reply
  46. Very interesting! I teach high school English, and I will definitely share this with my students! Fascinating!

    Reply
  47. I have to agree there is a tactile aesthetic that comes from handwritten notes and sketches that allows for a deeper thought process. I am a tech geek and do not get me wrong there is a feeling you get when you are typing that is similar but it is not a deep understanding or thought provoking process that comes with sitting down with pen and paper and writing out your thoughts.

    Reply
  48. I have been thinking along the same lines based on my own experience. Its nice when the science backs up what I already think I know!
    For me, writing and typing are very different experiences. Writing is more fluid and less structural. Typing is cleaner and has better boundaries but when I want to explore something new or in depth I prefer writing by hand.
    Thanks for your post!

    Reply
  49. Reblogged this on exploringhiskingdom and commented:
    I’ve always felt like something deeper was going on when writing by hand than when typing. Its nice to know its not just me.

    Reply
  50. Hello, I am new to the blogging world. I see that you have a good audience on your blog. I am an author and I just published my autobiography. I self published so I need to market it on my own. I want to raise awareness about my book so that it can reach and impact as many people as possible. If you can put this on your blog for your readers I would greatly appreciate it. I see that you have quote the following and it would really help if I had somebody with experience to help me promote my book. Thank you!! If you can even go to my blog and ‘reblog’ my post about my book that would be awesome thank you so much!!

    http://www.createspace.com/4271634

    Reply
    • Thanks for visiting my site. Because my intent with the page is “giving psychology away” (you can see a post of that title), advertising for others doesn’t fit with my aims. By accepting your comment viewers are free to click on your name though. Best wishes for a successful venture.

      Reply
  51. I love this! I encourage my students to write out their notes because it makes the material stick. I’ll be using this post as a reference :)

    Reply
  52. Don’t forget to write indeed. I love the advice you’ve given me.

    Reply
  53. Hello! Yes, there is a “different” feel when typing in comparison to writing. When I write longhand in the personal paper journal, there’s a longer pause between the mind and the hands.Typing is awesome and a source of convenience, but it feels like a drumming rhythm. Writing feels more like a paintbrush, not as liberal in it movements.

    Reply
  54. Reblogged this on Oriana's Postal Network & Blog and commented:
    Ok, this is a pretty cool article… again, sharing again :)

    Reply
  55. It seems as though I’ve always loved to write by hand. There is a difference, although for me subtle, between the process of typing and writing by hand. You’ve given some scientific validation to things which I have ‘felt’ for a long time. Very interesting post. Thanks

    Reply
  56. Reblogged this on Ericaritish's corner and commented:
    I always don’t.

    Reply
  57. I agree with your statement in the post that “hand yields greater memorial outcomes than does typing.” I must admit that I usually type, and I caught my self lately that whenever I try to simply “hand write” my stories, I can’t because I need:

    a) A4 paper, so I can have control over the whole page (the smaller format means more breaking on the story),
    b) a “perfect” pencil for the “perfect” handwriting (mine has gone awfully bad after years of just typing typing),
    c) Paper with no lines (because my computer provides one), etc.

    But what I realized is that I actually made myself believe that I can do no other type of writing than sitting behind the screen and moving my two fingers (I can’t even use my entire hand). So I started lately to force my self to simply write, with my hand, and I must say, even though my handwriting still sucks, it is so refreshing. I use typing again (no way not to), but I try not to forget that simple writing gives such a mental and muscle exercise to me that it is irreplaceable.

    Please, check out my site: http://myluggwhere.wordpress.com/

    Reply
    • Hi Kubra,
      I’ll look forward to checking out your site too, and thanks for visiting mine. To your comment, I applaud you for challenging yourself to keep on (hand)writing – challenges are good for us in so many ways. The quality of your handwriting doesn’t much matter as long as you can read it when you switch to keyboarding for polishing. Another thing to keep in mind too is that the research I summarize is about studying for retention, not fresh composition. It will be interesting to see whether anyone takes on that difference in future studies, as if you read the lengthy list of comments here on this post, many folks have something to say about composition as well!

      Reply
  58. I really love your post! And I have noticed that myself before! English is my second language and writing really helps to memorize more words in CORRECT spelling which is very important to me. In typing, the computer sometimes fix the mistakes so I don’t always notice my spelling mistakes!
    You’ve just got a new follower! Thanks a lot.

    Reply
  59. Reblogged this on S.Aboreed and commented:
    Nice Article

    Reply
  60. Hi
    I just stumbled over this blog and find it really interesting! I have often had the internal debate about the differences (production wise) between writing by hand and typing. For me personally, I find that my creative writing differs in tone when I type. I’m not saying that this is the case for everyone because I think people experience these things so, so differently. For me though, I find that my writing flows easier when I type. Somehow, typing my words allows more ‘daring’ , less perfectionism and more of the experimental.
    Thanks for writing such an amazingly thoughtful piece.

    WS

    Reply
    • You are welcome, and I am glad that you stumbled upon my writing! Regarding your experience, I think it’s important to note that the research I summarize is about using language production to aid memory, it’s not about composition. As far as I know to date, research focuses on memory exercises, not on the fluidity or creativity in fresh composition, but that would sure be an interesting question to tackle. I may set my senior thesis students up for that next year.

      Reply
  61. […] I am a fan of handwriting.  If I were a little more energetic, I might even aspire to being a champion of it, but I think “booster” is are far as I rise, and I decline the pompoms which frequently attend the office.  At various points in the past on this very enterprise, I’ve had little contemplations of the future of the skill, sometimes dark, sometimes tinted with optimism.  Recently I ran across another article on which repeats the “keep that, it’s more important than you think” line regarding handwriting, and I think anyone with an interest in handwriting, cognition, or retention of studied material should give it a look. […]

    Reply
  62. I agree with much of this – but handwriting can become an activity that is also done by rote. “writing” is just different, and it has an art side to it – and it is an experience – but many of us can push that pen in a way that is similar to the way you describe typing: “Your hands just fly around the keyboard and you can think about something else.” My middle finger is actually bent to the right a little (and has been since a teen) from writing so much (and maybe from pressing too hard for years). Anyhow, while I agree with the value of writing – and especially the need to keep handwriting alive for students- and agree that it has value as the way to process and allow ideas to flow – but for many people- it is not the key to staying engaged.

    Not everyone uses the key pad the same – and not everyone uses a pen or pencil the same – and so even if when you type you “perceptually you must engage differently to keep the processes moving along” – we do not all type the same – and our minds process material in different ways.
    I think that typing has huge advantages and perks that were not mentioned (and I have dozens of journals with hand written notes, so trust me, I love writing, but I have much typed material too – and sometimes type 3,000+ words in single day – and for some of us – our deeper cognitive engagement may actually come more from typing!! We have the gift of editing as we go – and cleaning up sentences on the spot – and for me, typing may even have more of a connection with “thought and language deeply linked.”
    I like your article – but disagree that it applies to everyone – and would say that in many cases typing may have the deeper engagement. thx. :)

    Reply
    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! The points you raise have been made by other readers as well, and highlight an important distinction. That is, the research I review in my post is about conditions that promote retention (building up the knowledge base), not fresh composition. In your comments, it appears that composition is what’s on your mind, rather than a way to study material in a scholastic setting. Understanding the mechanisms involved in composing work, and what the lasting consequences of various composition modalities might be, is still an open research question, and indeed a question that will prove challenging to test experimentally. There is a smattering of work that distantly relates to this question (from my own lab) comparing typing to talking with a conversation partner, and that research shows that the language producer (the one sharing a memory) frames and elaborates memories differently when talking vs. typing. I have yet to test all three variables at once though, and have yet to also vary whether the material under scrutiny is from memory or is a creative composition. In other words, the research is new and not fully fleshed out. All that aside though, the research looking at means of boosting retention does converge on the position that handwriting has an advantage. A challenge psychological scientists always face when discussing the results of research is that when readers compare their own intuitive reflections to research outcomes and find them at odds, they tend to side with their own experience and ignore the research — doing so is natural of course. But doing so can lead folks to ignore important advances in research. Finally, you are correct in noting that typing can be fully engaging and writing can be rote – yet, typing and writing are still different motor skills, and the differences in what the hands and mind are doing are something researchers are finding matters.The engagement is a key piece, but so too are the motor movements and the perceptual challenges in letter production and recognition that differ from one modality to the other, no matter the degree of engagement.

      Reply
      • Thanks Erica – you are quite smooth in your delivery! And actually, I was referring to scholastic work (and possibly writing about and reflecting on previous studies, gaps, and theoretical underpinnings). And sadly, I do not have the time right now to really explore this topic in a way that I would like to – and so I am sorry if I did not address your research angle better, but all research, as I am sure you well know, has to monitor external validity as well – because findings depend on which population was studied? – under which circumstance? and if there were any other factors (temporal things) that impacted the results? How about internal issues as well? Anyhow, Yes, I was addressing my personal experience as I replied – and I can see that I likely would be in the group that is an exception to some of the general findings because I write and type more than most.

        I also now see (thanks) how the “letter production” is obviously different from typing to writing –
        However, considering the motor movement, well handwriting cannot be lumped into one general area of motor movement because there are so many variables. Pencil may not flow like a pen. An H pencil will have different flow from a 5B. What about the days of the quill pens? Or what if someone uses a cheap Bic pen that does not flow well compared to a Uniball pen with ink that has smoother lines? Or how about chisel tip markers that allow for calligraphic letters – or how about those who handwrite with a stylus on their laptop? And then typing – how about the differences between pecking and using both hands? There are those that peck with two fingers slowly – or those that peck but can type at over 100 wpm that way – that is different motor movement from those that use a full keyboard with proper finger placement. Hmmm…

        In closing, thanks for your detailed and smooth reply. Your research about the talking variable sounds interesting! I am truly glad that I stumbled on your blog and this great post – so interesting! Best wishes to you and your work.

  63. Excellent article! As a writer, I find this to be very true. As an education consultant, I received an article the other day that is quite similar to the one you referenced. Here it is if you desire to check it out: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201303/what-learning-cursive-does-your-brain.

    Additionally, here are some articles on my education blog that may interest you or your readers:
    http://theeducationcafe.wordpress.com/2011/02/06/grow-a-better-brain/
    http://theeducationcafe.wordpress.com/2013/03/07/brain-exercises-and-midline-repost/
    Blessings!

    Reply
  64. I agree with you. Although it would be easier for me to type my personal journal, I believe the words would be greater in number (I can type 92 wpm) but emptier in depth and character and insight. I choose to hand-write my journals. And I suppose from them my creative juices get flowing and I type them out from there, vaguely processed. I do find great joy in transforming limp and lifeless sentences into something greater, which I do better on the keyboard. Thanks for posting.

    Reply
    • You are welcome. I agree with you too – the combination of writing and typing at different points can work wonders. It is important to note too though that the research I review is not about composition, rather its about study techniques and ways to enhance memory.

      Reply
  65. hand writing …old school … really liked it !!!

    Reply
  66. Pen and paper…Is that possible? I mean, do they still use those tools??

    My father-in-law was 95 when he died 11 years ago. He was intelligent and articulate but left school in the 8th grade because his father died. He was needed to help support his mom and siblings. He always took enormous pride in his penmanship. And, his cursive was clear and wonderfully created..

    One doesn’t have to be a Ph.D. in order to understand the hard work, determination and selfless love that it took for my FIL to give up a dream of graduating from high school. But, times were different then.. He had learned the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic and used these skills in everyday life.

    He never went back to school, but held important positions in Goodrich tires for the majority of his working life. After retirement, he went back to work because he enjoyed working for his local county government.

    He left this earth with a loving family and healthy bank account at a time when men earned $1.65/hour. He was simply amazing.

    So, back to your blog.. Yes, do encourage young people/teachers to use pen and paper. For the keyboard is not always as handy as their 5 fingers..

    Reply
    • Absolutely. And that you for sharing your family story to support the idea that there’s value in handwriting. It really is an art that would be more than a shame to lose.

      Reply
  67. Escape your eyes from that monitor and hold something aside from your mouse!Thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
  68. […] suggests otherwise. It seems that students can multitask, in a way, if, as Kleinknecht phrases it, the task they are engaged in is “rich with detail that can serve as cues for later memory […]

    Reply
  69. Reblogged this on reflections and commented:
    really nice

    Reply
  70. Reblogged this on reflections and commented:
    nice

    Reply
  71. I guess, hand writing is also a good thing. Using computer in writing usually distract us from doing a good blogs or essay due to other distraction that you could possibly do when you are in front of computers..Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    Reply
    • Speaking for myself, it is true that non-work activities on a computer can distract from the work activities. However, when writing at least the first version of a blog entry or other text, this is rarely an issue—the writing is sufficiently engaging in it self that other activities rarely can competet. The problem instead comes if I have finished an almost done version and (immediately or at a later time) move on to fixing todos, polishing language, proof-reading, …

      At this stage, I would have more-or-less the same problem if I had written by hand—and would still need to type the text into the computer before publishing, which it self is the kind of boring activity from which I am easily distracted…

      (As a matter of fact, I have a few hundred hand-written pages, written during a sabbatical, that were the reason I originally put up a website. While the website has grown large by now, the contents are almost exclusively new writings. The very clear majority of these pages have simply been laying around for some five years—and I start to doubt that they will ever actually be put online.)

      Reply
  72. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. Great post and see you soon.

    Reply
  73. When I could no longer hold a pen… I also found I no longer write.

    Reply

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About Erica Kleinknecht

As a professor and a parent, I think a lot about education. Turns out that the topics I teach (e.g., cognitive and developmental psychology) inform my thoughts about teaching, and that is what I want to write about here.

Category

Education & Teaching, Learning & Memory, Parenting

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