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In a groundbreaking study, researchers have shown that handwriting is better than typing as a means of retaining information precisely because handwriting is slow, whereas typing is fast…

We all know Aesop’s fable about the Tortoise and the Hare but few of us really believe, in the real world, that slowcoaches like the tortoise have a cat in hell’s chance of beating those in life’s fast lane. Few really believe, with John Milton, that “they also serve who only stand and wait.” Those who stand and wait get left behind, stupid. You snooze, you lose.

Those of us who believe that time taken is time well spent are in a minority in our frantic and frenetic world. We are an endangered species. It is, therefore, refreshing to discover that even scientists are beginning to agree with us. Take, for instance, research psychologists, Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles. In a groundbreaking study, these diligent researchers have shown that handwriting is better than typing as a means of retaining information precisely because handwriting is slow, whereas typing is fast. Like Aesop’s tortoise, Mueller and Oppenheimer have proved that slow and steady does indeed win the race, at least where learning is concerned.

Whereas earlier studies argued that laptops were poor tools for note-taking because of the many tempting distractions on the internet, this latest research illustrates that handwriting is better for the simple reason that it slows the learner down. The counterintuitive paradox is that slowing down with note taking accelerates learning. The tortoise really does outpace the hare merely by taking its time.

The irony is that a typist, sitting in a classroom, can transcribe almost everything that the teacher is saying without having to critically engage with what’s actually being said. The transcription process requires no thought and therefore no critical thinking. The fingers dance over the keys at dazzling speed, putting the words down on the page as fast as they leave the mouth of the teacher, and yet the brain is disengaged from what’s being said by the teacher or written by the fingers. There is no active and proactive grappling with the material being discussed. The sublime gets lost in the subliminal.

As psychologists and educationists have discovered, and as those with common sense have always known, a failure to signal to the brain that the material is important will result in its being discarded from memory for the sake of mental efficiency. Why retain what seems to be unimportant because it was unengaging? In contrast, taking notes by hand is slower and, therefore, requires that the listener pays attention. He can’t write down every word the teacher is saying so he needs to be selective, choosing significant quotes, summarizing concepts, and asking questions when something is not understood.

Drs. Mueller and Oppenheimer conclude from the data collected in their study that “transcrib[ing] lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to [the student’s] learning.” Corroborating the results of this research, Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris, told the New York Times, that students who wish to succeed should consider leaving their laptops at home or in their dorm rooms. “When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” he said. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain, it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize.”

Such research is needed, even if the conclusions are somewhat obvious to those who haven’t lost their common sense. For those who have long since abandoned common sense for hare-brained ideology, only scientific studies will make them see the error of their ways. Meanwhile, as the hare-brained continue to think they can win the race by rushing around like a dust storm in a desert, the slow plodding tortoise, writing slowly but surely in the time-honoured cursive script, will leave the vacuous in their vortex, crossing the finishing line with gloriously unhurried decorum.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Intellectual Takeout (February 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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9 replies to this post
  1. An interesting piece, although my college notes were pretty lousy and I don’t think doing them on a laptop would have improved them any. Still, I knew a guy in college who had a brilliant technique. He would record his classes, which allowed him to pay full attention to the lecture. Then he would go home, play back the lecture and take his notes from that. I never tried it myself, but this particular guy seemed to be far more organized (and got much better grades) than the rest of us.

  2. My comment: I’ve taught this for years to my grad students. The more senses involved in learning the better the retention of the knowledge. That said, it’s not the speed, it’s the touch, the eye traveling back and forth from the source of information, the body responding to direction from the brain, the translation and connection of the information to what’s already been learned. It’s a physical process that is much more complicated and involved than just typing the words as a court recorder. That’s my take from observation and research

  3. It’s always funny when science catches up with what we’ve always known. I’ve marveled at the hand-brain connection for a long time because it seems that even doodling allows you to synthesize information. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

  4. No.

    Both handwriting and typing put ideas into a form that impedes any relevant processing of it. Far better is putting the information into a graphic format. It should tell you something that absolutely every police procedural organizes information into a graphic flow chart format.
    There’s far, far more advanced ways of ordering information if you have a computer instead of a wall. If interested contact me.

  5. I teach college history and use Power Points for lectures. Students are always aghast that I won’t make the PPs available to them–and the reason is largely because of what this article says: that if they take notes in their own handwriting, they will retain the material better.
    Well, that, plus I despise laziness.

  6. I look back at my law school notes and I’m amazed at how well I could write back then. After being called to the bar, taking notes during pre-trial examinations of witnesses, I was still pretty good, but now (I refuse to say how many years later, ha!) my handwriting is terrible. But you know, I see young lawyers pecking away their notepads during discoveries, transcribing almost every word the witness is saying, and I wonder how much thought he or she (the lawyer) is giving to his or her next question.

    I wonder how Pitman Shorthand fits into Mr Pearce’s thesis?

  7. I progressed from taking notes, to transcribing in my own “shorthand”, to translating to Spanish (or English, if the lecture was in Spanish) and getting that down in my own shorthand. Months later, I could often repeat parts of the lecture verbatim.

    I don’t know if I could still do that. The years are nibbling away at the edges of my brain.

  8. “I teach college history and use Power Points for lectures. Students are always aghast that I won’t make the PPs available to them–and the reason is largely because of what this article says: that if they take notes in their own handwriting, they will retain the material better.
    Well, that, plus I despise laziness.”
    I believe it is unfair to expect students to reproduce the details of powerpoiont figures that the instructor has had the leisure pack densely ahead of time. As opposed to times past, when the student was able to observe the speedbumped instructor writing things out on the board. Notetaking there doubled down on “muscle memory”.

  9. This study seems to make the assumption that lecturing is a good way to retain information to begin with. Many studies have shown that lecturing is the weakest form of instruction if the goal is retention. Because of this, I personally (and in my teaching experience) have found that typing is a much more efficient way of taking notes because it allows you to record more of the information so that you can go back and reflect on it in detail without the spin of your summarized notes. When typing I can listen to the speaker with a more relaxed feeling because I’m not in a rush to try and get things written down. I encourage my student to type out their notes as well.

    Reflection is the key to retention. Going back for a second time to read or hear a lecture with the goal of discussing it with others and reflecting on the ideas actually improves retention by a much greater percentage than any hand written note ever would. In this day and age, being able to organize and reflect on data is more important than initially retaining all of it.

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