Better learning through handwriting

One of the points I mention in my book on notetaking is that the very act of taking notes helps us remember — it’s not simply about providing yourself with a record. There are a number of reasons for this, but a recent study bears on one of them. The researchers were interested in whether physically writing by hand has a different effect than typing on a keyboard.

In a fascinating experiment, adults were asked to learn to write in an unknown alphabet, with around twenty letters. One group was taught to write by hand, while another group used a keyboard. Participants were tested on their fluency and recall after three and six weeks. Those who had learned the letters by handwriting were significantly better on all tests. Moreover, Broca's area, a brain region involved in language, was active when this group were recognizing the letters, but not among those who had learned by typing on a keyboard.

The findings point to the importance of sensorimotor processes in processes we have typically regarded as primarily intellectual.

I recently reported on another finding concerning handwriting — that the memory-blocking effect of exam anxiety could be overcome by the simple strategy of writing out your anxieties just before the exam. It’s also interesting in this context to remember the research into the benefits of gesturing for reducing the load on your working memory, with consequent assistance for memory, learning and comprehension. The writing effect on exam anxiety is also thought to be related to reducing the load on working memory.

In the case of this latest study, it seems likely that the benefits have more to do with the increased focus on the shape of the letters that occurs when writing by hand, and with the intimate connection between reading and writing.

But the message of these different studies is the same: that we ignore the physical at our peril; that cognition is “embodied cognition”, rooted in our bodies in ways we are only beginning to understand.

References: 

Mangen, A. & Velay, J. (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, Advances in Haptics, Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), InTech,  Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/articles/show/title/digitizing-literacy-reflec... Press release at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-01/uos-blt011911.php

Comments

Generalizability?

Thanks for this Fiona. Two ideas linger in my mind, however, regarding this experiment.

1. Since letters are shapes it seems to make sense that writing them will be better for remembering them is better than typing. I do not think we can conclude from this that handwriting is better for remembering conceptual information.

2. It seems to me that type writing would be similar to hand writing in taking notes with conceptual information if the typist is well trained so that his working memory is not crowded with operating the keyboard. It might even be better, as the ideas can be written faster, preventing information from being forgotten before it is written.

Re: Generalizability?

Two good points, and you're right, we can't conclude anything about the remembering of abstract information from this study. However, an increasing number of studies indicate there is a close connection between cognition and action, even to the extent of abstract concepts. That is, even concepts we regard as abstract are often rooted in action. For example, time concepts are rooted in space, and our movements in space. Number is grounded in our body, and shows up in odd ways, for example, in handwritten arithmetic expressions containing both multiplications and additions, terms that are multiplied are often placed physically closer together than terms that are added. Our recognition of famous athletes activates areas of the motor system.

So, I think we are only beginning to understand how far these effects go, and the extent to which quite abstract concepts are ultimately rooted (and are still attached to) physical actions. I look forward to seeing more research in this area.

But even apart from this, I think the researchers' comments about the tight connection between reading and writing are well-made. Certainly as far as memory is concerned, the more senses you involve, the better your memory code. Therefore, simply on those grounds, I would suspect that handwriting is likely to form better memories than typewriting. While you make an interesting point about working memory, there's also the counteracting issue of automaticity -- the faster the typist, the less attention they pay to what they're typing. Part of the reason, it's speculated, for the benefits of handwriting was in fact the slow speed, and thus the increased attention being paid to details.

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