In 1974, researchers Palmatier and Bennett conducted one of the largest-ever studies on student note-taking. In their study, the researchers expressed concern over modern technology impacting the note-taking habits of students.
What kind of modern technology were they worried about in 1974?
That’s right. Boring old spiral-bound notebooks.
What seemed like a disruptive technology less than 50 years ago is now the “traditional” medium of note-taking.
Coming back to today, the laptop is a more disruptive technology than the notebook ever was.
However, is it a good disruption, or a bad disruption?
In this guide, I’ll be analyzing that very question, by comparing handwriting and typing from various standpoints, together with giving my final personal opinion on which is better.
In this guide, the following comparisons between handwritten and typed notes will be made:
Handwriting vs. Typing: Taking the notes
In scientific literature, the learning that takes place during the note-taking process is often called the encoding function. The encoding function encompasses only the act of note-taking itself. That is – does the act of note-taking by itself, without any reviewing, provide any benefits to knowledge acquisition?
One study, conducted by Kobayashi, seems to suggest that yes – there is a positive encoding (although moderate) effect from note-taking. A highly cited study conducted by Kiewra in 1985 also revealed the same, with note-taking students (who did not review their notes) performing slightly better than students who didn’t take any notes.
Thus, we can conclude that there are benefits to the act of note-taking itself.
Now, if we go back to the handwritten vs. typed notes debate, this aspect is one of the most commonly discussed in scientific papers. Many of the studies around the benefits of handwritten notes focus on this specific aspect – the value of handwritten encoding.
Here’s what the research says:
- Handwritten notes benefit learning through the transformation and organization of notes during the note-taking process.
- Transforming and organizing lecture content into your own words boosts performance as these types of generative processes require more active participation than simply passively copying information verbatim.
- Note-takers that type on a laptop often transcribing lectures word-by-word and this has been proven to be ineffective as a study method. This can also limit knowledge acquisition, memorization, and retention normally achieved during the note-taking process.
- In a 2014 study conducted by Urry et. al., it was found that while the notes of students who use laptops have a higher word count, their quiz results tended to be worse.
Thus, it appears that for the encoding aspect of taking notes, the upper hand goes to handwriting.
Handwriting vs. Typing: Editing the notes
One major benefit of typing and digital note-taking is that you can easily edit your notes after class. Handwritten notes also have some room for corrections, but the more you edit them, the messier and harder to review they usually get.
By having your notes stored inside a digital file you can edit, copy, resize, and move the sentences around however you deem fit. This also makes using after-class note-taking methods such as the charting method, mapping method, and boxing method much easier, because you can simply cut and paste your notes instead of having to rewrite them.
While a one-on-one repetition of note-taking is not an effective study method, the act of restructuring your notes into a more digestible and reviewable format after class is a powerful technique. Not only will you be using semantic processing while changing the notes, but you’ll also be summarizing the information and learning during the process.
When it comes to editing notes after-class, typing takes a comfortable win.
Handwriting vs. Typing: Memorization
When it comes to memorization, studies seem to suggest that handwriting outperforms typing. In essence, it’s because we remember the words that we write down by hand more accurately than by typing them. While there are some studies that present opposing views, most studies have found handwriting to be better for memorization than typing.
Here’s what the research says about memorization for handwriting and typing:
- Handwriting is a complex physical task requiring a series of unique movements and it provides an additional layer of memorization.
- Handwritten notes require semantic processing to summarize lecture information into fewer words. This results in deeper processing and better memorization.
- Typing requires less kinesthetic information and mostly consists of repetitive, unidentifiable movements. This results in memorization for typed words being comparatively poor.
- One study found that the mechanical demands of taking handwritten notes may put restrictions on the encoding of information. Having to monitor one’s hand movements and the pen can act as inhibitors to the process of learning.
According to a 2012 study, students with a poor working memory may benefit from transcribing using a computer.
Handwriting vs. Typing: Distractions & multitasking
An unquestionable drawback to digital note-taking and typing on laptops is the ease of distraction. Studies have shown that students who use laptops during class multitask an average of 17 minutes out of every 75 minute class period. During class, 81% of students check their email, 68% use instant messaging, 43% browse the Internet, and 25% play games.
Here’s what the research says about digital distractions and multitasking:
- Laptop use can strongly interfere with the learning process as human attention is selective and limited by design.
- Digital devices are full of attention-grabbing features: warnings, pop-ups, flickering lights, and quick movements. These can all be causes of cognitive overload and attentional shifts.
- Fried’s landmark study conducted in 2006 found that academic success in the classroom was negatively related to laptop use and that the use of laptops can have serious negative consequences to learning.
- Another large-scale study, conducted in 2003, found that students that used laptops performed worse on traditional measures of memory due to multitasking.
This point concludes with a major win for handwriting.
Handwriting vs. Typing: Note organization
The ability to organize your notes is a topic that does not tend to get covered in note-taking research that often. However, in my opinion, it’s one of the most important topics in the handwritten vs. typed notes debate.
From personal experience, I have found that efficiently organizing dozens of physical notebooks is nearly impossible in the long-term.
Time and time again, I have been in situations where I had to find an important piece of information that I had written down in a notebook somewhere. However, more often than not, it took me too long to find what I was looking for and I had to give up before finding the note I was searching for.
With digital notes, that’s not a problem.
By using a combination of free tools (such as Obsidian, Notion, and Simplenote) to organize all my notes, I can quickly search my entire database of typed notes and find what I’m looking for within seconds.
Some might argue that efficient personal knowledge management can also be accomplished with handwritten notes. That’s true, but it’s much more complicated. Unless you’re Niklas Luhmann with hundreds of notebook drawers, you’re more than likely going to lose your physical notes sooner or later. This means that any knowledge recorded in those notes will be lost and forgotten.
When it comes to organizing notes in the long-term, typing is a clear winner.
Which is better: Handwritten or typed notes?
It appears that based on the sections above, handwriting came out on top as the winner 3:2.
Indeed, there are many benefits to taking notes by hand. Writing notes by hand is better for memorization, semantic processing, and encoding. Physical notebooks are also not nearly as distracting as laptops and they don’t cause feelings of wealth inequality between students.
Yet, at the end of the day, I will continue to type all my notes digitally.
The benefits of note organization on digital devices are something I cannot pass up, and having the ability to easily edit my notes after-class is also very valuable for me.
At the same time, I do recognize the benefits of longhand writing and I think that a modern blend of physical notebooks and digital devices can be one of the most powerful solutions in the coming years. Tablet devices with digital stylus pens can replicate many of the advantages of handwriting while retaining the efficiency of typed notes.
At the same time, we need to be wary of the many drawbacks of digital devices. These devices are constantly fighting for our attention, and attention hijacking is dangerous to the learning process. If we can remove these digital distractions from the equation, I believe digital note-taking tools have the potential to be far superior to handwriting.
Ultimately, I want all my notes to forever stay with me in a searchable form, and that is my main motivator for choosing typing over handwriting. Ultimately, though, taking effective notes is achievable with both methods.