Sunday, May 25, 2014

Handwriting Improves Memory Retention

So, the Boston Globe Ideas section today (May 25, 2014), has an article, "Taking Notes? Bring a pen, skip the computer." The article is based on (and thoughtfully includes a link to) a scholarly article by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, "The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking," (this is an updated version of the article linked from the Globe article). The article has not yet come out in print, but may be in vol. 25, issue 6, June, 2014, Psychological Science. From the abstract of the Mueller/Oppenheimer article:
Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.
The Globe article describes the research from this scholarly paper. The Oppenheimer and Mueller divided their research subjects watch a lecture video. One half were assigned to take notes on laptops, and the other half were assigned to take notes by hand. 30 minutes to one week later, all the subjects were tested on their memory of the facts and concepts in the lecture. Those who took longhand notes performed "significantly better" than those who took notes on laptops, particularly regarding the conceptual elements of the lecture. The Globe author, Ruth Graham does an interesting job of following up this report by bringing together expert quotes and more reports of other research. I recommend reading the article.

Basically, experts are pointing out that those taking notes on computers are making themselves into automatons who take the words in through the ear, and automatically put it out their fingers, without processing it through the brain. An article in The Atlantic of May 1, 2014, also reporting this same research, elaborates that the Mueller and Oppenheimer even warned the laptop users NOT to simply transcribe the lecture, but to make notes in their own words. But the computer users still seemed to fall into transcription mode automatically. Yet somehow, those who handwrote the notes, perhaps because they were significantly slower, and had no hope of transcribing the lecture, engaged in mental processing and summarization in their notes. That mental processing resulted in much greater retention of both facts and concepts from the lecture.

I recall earlier research on the same topic, that adds considerably to the understanding of what is happening when we write by hand. On January 24,2011, Science Daily reported findings by Norwegian professor Anne Mangen and French professor Jean-Luc Velay who surveyed the research literature. The Science Daily report includes a description of research that is not discussed in the publication I link below. This research involved teaching a group of adult research subjects to write an unknown alphabet of 20 characters. Half the subjects were taught using keyboards and half were taught to hand write the characters. Three and six weeks into the experiment, the subjects were tested on their recall of the characters. In both tests, those subjects learning to hand write the alphabet performed better both recalling the characters and recognizing when characters were reversed or drawn correctly. Additionally, fMRI scans on the subjects showed an area of the brain, Broca's area, associated with speech production was activated in those who used handwriting, but not in those who used computer keyboards.

The Science Daily report is based on material from Professor Mangen and an interview with her. The original research appeared in a book, Advances in Haptics, available here as "Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing." The researchers write:
... [T]he visual attention of the writer is strongly concentrated during handwriting; the attentional focus of the writer is dedicated to the tip of the pen, while during typewriting the visual attention is detached from the haptic input, namely the process of hitting the keys. Hence, typewriting is divided into two distinct, and spatiotemporally separated, spaces: the motor space (e.g., the keyboard), and the visual space (e.g., the screen). Another major difference pertains to the production of each character during the two writing modes. In handwriting, the writer has to graphomotorically form each letter – i.e., produce a graphic shape resembling as much as possible the standard shape of the specific letter. In typewriting, obviously, there is no graphomotor component involved; the letters are “readymades” and the task of the writer is to spatially locate the specific letters on the keyboard. Finally, word processing software provides a number of features all of which might radically alter the process of writing for professional as well as for beginning writers. [They are referring to spellcheck and grammarcheck.]

[They refer in section 4 to a list of research about the visual, kinesthetic and auditory interrelationships between writing/reading and the body and brain, referred to as "melodies."] ... the importance of acknowledging the vital role of haptics, and the profound and fundamental links between haptics and cognition, in writing. Our body, and in particular our hands, are inscribed in, and defining, the writing process in ways that have not been adequately dealt with in the research literature. The current radical shift in writing environments mandates an increased focus on the role of our hands in the writing process, and – even more importantly – how the movements and performance of the hand relate to what goes on in the brain. ....

... [F]ocusing instead on human cognition as inextricably and intimately bound to and shaped by its corporeal foundation – its embodiment. In this current of thought, cognition is no longer viewed as abstract and symbolic information processing with the brain as a disembodied CPU. It is becoming increasingly clear that the body is an active component that adds uniquely and indispensably to cognition, and that human cognition is grounded in distinct and fundamental ways to embodied experience and hence is closely intertwined with and mutually dependent on both sensory perception and motor action.
This fascinating article rings all kinds of bells with me, at least. I blogged about this issue of body and tool shaping the mind back in 2008, when I was all excited over the book Proust and the Squid, by MaryAnne Wolfe. I found earlier research on the subject in Science Daily which is referenced in that blogpost as well. We humanists need to stay in touch with what the scientists are saying because sometimes they have some pretty profound things to say about issues close to our hearts! I found it fascinating that some of the research in the Digitizing Literacy article shows that merely watching images of people performing work, of tools, or even hearing or reading just action verbs all can trigger areas of the brain that DOING the task would trigger. (Too bad it doesn't burn the calories, or couch potatoes would all be buff athletes!)

The image decorating this blogpost is the Creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel, a Wiki Commons image, at


Nan jay Barchowsky said...

Thank you! As a handwriting specialist, I am aware of most of what you mentioned, and I read the Globe article, but you pulled a lot of information together in a great blog.

Now that we know the importance of writing by hand, the next step is to help children with fluency. The speed of note-taking would be greatly enhanced if young children had the pre-writing, letter-related activities that would help them hold a pencil with the relaxed hand that forms letters with ease.

Betsy McKenzie said...

What I find sad is that schools are no longer teaching students cursive writing. I hear this from a variety of students and people who work with interns. There is so much emphasis on standardized tests (which don't test cursive handwriting, art, or music), that schools are dumping overboard the things that are not tested, I think. There simply isn't time to cover it all.

Thus, I heard from a cousin who works at a research facility where notes are taken in longhand, that they have had interns who did not know how to read the cursive script or how to write quickly that way themselves. These poor young folks had to learn a lot on the job! I have had other stories as well.

But this information about how much more is tied to handwriting made me more sad than ever at the loss of cursive handwriting in schools!

Nan jay Barchowsky said...

The article presents the rationale for handwriting instruction, but not for the sort of cursive (call it conventional cursive) that is commonly taught in the US and Canada.

Public schools teach two ways to write when only one is necessary. Worse, the two require implanting one into motor memory, then retraining for new shapes and stroke directionality. The retraining is given short schrift because of limited classroom time.

Many manage with their personal versions of the print-like script they first learned; they add joins to make it move faster.

Conventional cursive is not the only cursive. Some schools and homeschoolers find a solution with italic. It is the method I have successfully taught for nearly 40 years. Curious? See