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.
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.