Write to Remember

The arrival of tablet technology (iPad, Samsung and others) has made it easier than ever to use your tablet as a one stop device. Many people use tablets to take notes in meetings or in class because typing your notes makes them more readable and easier to store, email, and share. But you may be missing out on the considerable benefit of handwriting your notes.

I know what you’re thinking: aren’t you the girl who just wrote that the handwritten thank you may be finished? Yes. But that was about communicating; this is about learning.

A recent study published in Psychological Science found that participants who took notes by hand in the study retained more of the information they had received. In part, that’s because we are so much more inefficient when we write by hand. “Students who took notes on the laptop were basically transcribing the lecture,” says Princeton University psychological scientist Pam Mueller, lead author of the study. “Because we write by hand less quickly, those who took notes with pen and paper had to be more selective, choosing the most important information to include in their notes. This enabled them to study the content more efficiently.”

You also use more areas of your brain when you listen to a lecture (or instructions) and write at the same time. You activate both the language center, which is paying attention to what’s being said, and the part of the brain that creates spatial relationships.  Writing is also a form of visualization, which can help you mentally rehearse steps in a process. Your notes serve as a way to mindfully practice the steps of solving a problem.

This effect is amplified even more if you are a doodler. Doodlers often illustrate their notes with drawings and directional icons like arrows that show how ideas are related or ordered. The act of thinking about what ideas matter most and which are connected helps you to synthesize and deepen your retention of the material.

Doodling adds real power to your memory. A 2009 study conducted by the Plymouth (UK) School of Psychology  asked 40 participants to listen to a monotonous mock telephone message with the names of people coming to a party. Half of the group was randomly assigned to a ‘doodling’ condition where they shaded printed shapes while listening to the telephone call. The doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29% more information on a surprise memory test.

Some scientists are concerned that young children are losing some of this vital brain activity as handwriting is being replaced by typing at a younger and younger age. A 2012 study led by Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University, found that the inherent messiness of young children’s handwriting serves an important purpose: it teaches them that every variation of a letter is still the same letter. No matter how shaky or crooked your five year old’s letter G is, it’s still a G. If they only see the typewritten version, they may not recognize other variations. The study also found that children who hand wrote   produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas as well. Writing helps young brains develop reading and thinking skills and may also be linked to creativity.

It’s possible that your keyboard may be stunting your growth. But we are creatures who love convenience, so what to do? One compromise may be to use a stylus to handwrite notes on your tablet. Apps like Notability and Penultimate allow you to write on ruled screen and save documents to Evernote or Dropbox for storage.

Get started doodling today. Here’s a list of handwriting apps from iTunes.


One thought on “Write to Remember

  1. I can’t doodle, nor draw. I can believe some of the points made in this post on doodling, for it makes sense. I’ve always been a poor written note-take too. I write too slow (I print). By the time my brain shortens the speakers words to something hasty I can write down, the speaker is far along on new important details. Although Darwin rightly said, “Never trust anything to memory,” I’ve had to write senseless notes at times, while using memory ciombined with those senseless notes, ro remember the lecturers points. On the other hand, I have a fine memory for information read, long into the past—if you count 2 to 3 years into the past, as long. I am fascinated by memory and how it works, along with how to better my memory, but have never found a good, helpful explanation.

    I agree, you remember what you write down, better than simply listening and relying on memory. Since I love to write, I’ve found, handwriting most material before typing it into a computer is an excellent idea. However, a computer is better at storing a flood of thoughts or ideas and there are times a first story draft can be typed as it floods out of your brain, faster than you can write it and remember it. As I said, in my case, note taking can be fatal to expressing an idea or a point.

    Children may indeed be losing a lot. I am sure they are gaining mentally in ways we can’t relate too, especially visually. This is a very important post! I may return with more comments, as I take time to re-read it. Mainly, this will be a way for me to think about the ideas of the post; another way memory works as a wise guide to understanding and deeper thought. I believe it is called Fracture writing or some might call it Old English Style (artsy or calligraphy) is something I can’t read well, because I was never taught to read it or only barely learned it. It is important for educators to weigh the gains and losses as we change forms of communication. I say this despite a preference for print over cursive handwriting.

    Okay, enough said for the moment. Let’s call this my note to myself, but am open to hearing the thoughts of others on this topic, especially educators. Like I said, I am a poor note-taker. Guess my brain is a little scrambled by thinking while writing. Thanks!


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