If you want to boost your ability to learn new things and remember important information, studies show there’s one quick and easy way to do that.
Researchers have found that if we take notes by hand, writing them out the old fashioned way, we can learn more effectively than when we tap our notes into a phone or a computer.
The Power of the Pen
For example, scientists at Princeton performed a study entitled “The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard.” They compared taking notes on a laptop during a lecture to writing notes out by hand, and found that students with handwritten notes could answer conceptual questions about the lecture better than the computer users.1
This analysis found that laptop note takers tend to just type out exactly what a lecturer is saying. But those who write things out by hand must process the information more deeply and, in their note taking, summarize what it means as they write it down.
Having taken a ton of notes in my life, I can vouch for what they’re saying. The hand can’t write as fast as someone can talk, so you have to condense and abbreviate what’s being said in a way that will make sense to you later when you review it.
But if you’re skilled on a keyboard you can keep up with the speaker and you don’t have to think so much. Consequently, the researchers conclude that the “lap top note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim, rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”
More “Hooks” to Hang Your Memories On
Another insight into this process comes from a study at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where scientists analyzed the electrical activity that takes place in the brain when we write with pen and pencil compared to using a keyboard.2
In this investigation, the researchers note that as you write things out by hand, or make drawings, you stimulate brain activity that’s “beneficial for learning, especially as the activity was shown to occur in the rather deep structures of the brain.” Those structures include the hippocampus – an important memory center – as well as the limbic system, a part of the brain that’s involved in emotions and mood.
“The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain (those taking part in muscle movement and sensory interpretation),” says researcher Audrey Van der Meer. “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 sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better.”
Increases Knowledge, Too
Another study, this one at the University of Indiana, used brain scans to confirm much of what the study in Norway found.
This research, which involved children, found that writing letters and words activates three different parts of the brain while typing on a keyboard only activates one single area. And these scientists conclude that writing with a pen or pencil also helps to activate the fusiform gyrus, a part of the brain that aids in the understanding of words and also takes part in facial recognition.3
As Dr. Van Der Meer explains, “The intricate hand movements and the shaping of letters are beneficial in several ways. If you use a keyboard, you use the same movement for each letter. Writing by hand requires control of your fine motor skills and senses. It’s important to put the brain in a learning state as often as possible. I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I’d take notes by hand during a lecture.”
So please, don’t throw away your pads and pens! The evidence shows that if you want to remember any information more clearly, taking notes by hand can be invaluable.