At a professional conference in 2014, Clive Thompson, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, presented “The Pencil and the Keyboard: How The Way You Write Changes the Way You Think.” In this session, he claimed that handwriting was better than typing in certain situations and vice versa. One attendee, Eric Peters, decided to explore the issue further in the article “Keyboard vs. Pen: What’s the Best Way to Take Notes?” Before reading on, think about how you would answer that question, and then examine his research below.
Handwriting Improves Memory Retention
Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer conducted an experiment to see whether people would remember more after taking notes by hand or on a keyboard. They instructed half of the participants to write their notes with pen and paper. The other half used keyboards. In each of their trials, the people who wrote notes by hand remembered more of the information. Why?
The answer has to do with a mental process called synthesis. As you listen to a lecture, for example, you can’t write fast enough to record every single word of speech. To compensate, your brain decides which information is most important, and that’s what you write down. That’s synthesis. Have you heard the expression “in one ear and out the other”? Rather than discarding everything, your brain synthesizes information, thus making it easier to recall than non-synthesized information would be.
Typing, on the other hand, allows you to record the lecture almost verbatim, but it actually results in less synthesis, which results in less retention. Scientific American explains: “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.”
When Typing Is Better
Not everyone agrees that handwriting is the best option for notes. In a Thought Catalog blog, Zoe Annabel lists four ways typing may be preferable to handwriting. Her number three reason is efficiency. Typing may be better if the goal isn’t memory retention. For instance, rather than studying for an exam, perhaps you are taking minutes at a business meeting. If you plan to file the document afterward, you can always consult your notes later to find the information you need. In that case, fast typers would capture more details than someone taking notes by hand.
Another benefit of typing is neatness. Or as Zoe Annabel puts it, “typing is prettier.” Are you sharing the notes with someone? If your handwriting isn’t exactly neat, others reading the notes would probably appreciate a typed copy rather than a handwritten one. What about spelling, punctuation, and grammar? Many word processing programs come with a spelling checker or grammar checker that can help you catch misspelled words or other writing errors. Some programs even guess what you are trying to type after a few keystrokes! In short, when communicating with others, typing may be your best option.
What do you think of the research? Is it true in your case? Let us know in the comments: Do you take notes on paper or digitally?