woman studying writes in notebook at a table.

Why Hand Writing Notes Promotes Better Recall

As digital devices continue to replace pen and paper, taking notes by hand is becoming less and less common. Using a keyboard is often faster than writing by hand. However, writing by hand has been found to improve spelling accuracy and memory recall.

Researchers in Norway wanted to find out if the process of forming letters by hand resulted in greater brain connectivity. They investigated the underlying neural networks involved in both modes of writing.

Key Finding: The act of forming letters by hand increases brain activity and promotes connections which help with learning. Tapping on a keyboard creates less stimulation for the brain.

“We show that when writing by hand, brain connectivity patterns are far more elaborate than when typewriting on a keyboard,” said Prof Audrey van der Meer, a brain researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and co-author of the study published in Frontiers in Psychology. “Such widespread brain connectivity is known to be crucial for memory formation and for encoding new information and, therefore, is beneficial for learning.”

The Pen Is Mightier Than the (Key)Board

two students writing on tablets while wearing sensors sewn into nets draped over their heads.
Photo Credit: NTNU

The researchers collected EEG data from 36 university students who were repeatedly prompted to either write or type a word that appeared on a screen. When writing, the students used a digital pen to write in cursive directly on a touchscreen. When typing, the students used a single finger to press keys on a keyboard. The students wore 256 small sensors sewn into a net and placed over their heads to record data through high-density EEGs. The EEGs measure electrical activity in the brain and were recorded for five seconds for every prompt.

The connectivity of different brain regions increased when participants wrote by hand but not when they typed. “Our findings suggest that visual and movement information obtained through precisely controlled hand movements when using a pen contribute extensively to the brain’s connectivity patterns that promote learning,” van der Meer said.

Finger Movement for Memory

Although the participants used digital pens for handwriting, the researchers expect the same results when using a real pen on paper. “We have shown that the differences in brain activity are related to the careful forming of the letters when writing by hand while making more use of the senses,” van der Meer explained.

Writing in print is expected to have similar benefits for learning as cursive writing. This is because it is the movement of the fingers that occurs when forming letters that promotes brain connectivity.

On the contrary, the simple movement of hitting a key with the same finger repeatedly is less stimulating for the brain. “This also explains why children who have learned to write and read on a tablet can have difficulty differentiating between letters that are mirror images of each other, such as ‘b’ and ‘d’. They literally haven’t felt with their bodies what it feels like to produce those letters,” van der Meer said.

A Balancing Act

Their findings demonstrate the need to give students the opportunity to use pens, rather than having them type during class, the researchers said. Guidelines to ensure that students receive at least a minimum of handwriting instruction could be an adequate step. For example, cursive writing training has been re-implemented in many U.S. states at the beginning of the year.

At the same time, it is also important to keep up with continuously developing technological advances, they cautioned. This includes awareness of what way of writing offers more advantages under which circumstances. “There is some evidence that students learn more and remember better when taking handwritten lecture notes, while using a computer with a keyboard may be more practical when writing a long text or essay,” van der Meer concluded.

Author: Alissa Zorn

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Alissa Zorn is the founder of OverthoughtThis.com. She's a trauma-informed coach and cartoonist passionate about helping people overcome perfectionism and shame to build authentic, joyful lives. Alissa has been featured on the Good Men Project, Wealth of Geeks, Motherly, MSN.com and more.