Doing School Work by Hand Help Students Remember Better

I just finished a full summer term working at Wolfeboro (summer boarding school) — back on the school side of the boarding school equation.

Watching students work by hand — manually and methodically — brings me to think about a couple of articles on the subject of doing things by hand that I’ve kept on my desk for a few months, “What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” and “To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand.”

…these articles give us good reason to pause and think…we can have our students take notes on their laptops…I can require that this paper/project be produced and submitted electronically….But, will the students learn most effectively typing their notes?

Wolfeboro’s approach has always been to eschew fads and technology focusing instead on teaching fundamental processes with students setting aside technology for the summer and, shifting gears to preparing and producing their academic work by hand as a fundamental part of their Wolfeboro experience.

Wolfeboro is computer free. Students read with a pencil in their hands; work their problem sets by hand; take notes by hand; and, plan and write their papers by hand.

“What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades” and “To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand” highlight the emerging evidence that doing things by hand is important to brain development, and may be the most effective way to learn and commit knowledge to memory.

NYT writer Maria Konnikova primarily looks at a study by Karin James, “The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children” (paywall).

Konnikova writes:

When children had drawn a letter freehand, they exhibited increased activity in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write: the left fusiform gyrus, the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior parietal cortex.

By contrast, children who typed or traced the letter or shape showed no such effect. The activation was significantly weaker.

Dr. James attributes the differences to the messiness inherent in free-form handwriting: Not only must we first plan and execute the action in a way that is not required when we have a traceable outline, but we are also likely to produce a result that is highly variable.

That variability may itself be a learning tool. ‘When a kid produces a messy letter,’ Dr. James said, ‘that might help him learn it.’

The effect goes well beyond letter recognition. In a study that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks. (NYT)

It now appears that there may even be a difference between printing and cursive writing — a distinction of particular importance as the teaching of cursive disappears in curriculum after curriculum…”

Not every expert is persuaded that the long-term benefits of handwriting are as significant as all that. Still, one such skeptic, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, says the new research is, at the very least, thought-provoking.

‘With handwriting, the very act of putting it down forces you to focus on what’s important,’ he said. He added, after pausing to consider, ‘Maybe it helps you think better.’”(NYT)

In “To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand: students do worse on quizzes when they use keyboards in class,” Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer looks at Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer’s study “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer find that something that many classroom teachers know- “that people remember lectures better when they’ve taken handwritten notes, rather than typed ones.” (Atlantic)

…taking notes on a laptop seems to lead to verbatim notes, which make it tough to study well. And you can’t successfully warn someone to keep them from taking verbatim notes if they’re using a laptop.”

‘We don’t write longhand as fast as we type these days, but people who were typing just tended to transcribe large parts of lecture content verbatim,’ Mueller told me (Meyer). ‘The people who were taking notes on the laptops don’t have to be judicious in what they write down.’

She thinks this might be the key to their findings: Take notes by hand, and you have to process information as well as write it down. That initial selectivity leads to long-term comprehension.

‘I don’t think we’re gonna get more people to go back to notebooks necessarily,’ Mueller said. ‘Tablets might be the best of both worlds—you have to choose what to write down, but then you have the electronic copy.’”(Atlantic)

As you think about your student(s) going into the school year — and the dominance of technology in some classrooms — these articles give us good reason to pause and think.

We can have our students take notes on their laptops. I can require that this paper/project be produced and submitted electronically. But, will the students learn most effectively typing their notes? Will the student learn most effectively producing the paper on his computer?

The jury is out on these questions. If you’re a teacher, you might consider more handwork. If you’re a parent and you come across a technologically driven classroom, you might ask some questions.

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Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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