Photo of handwriting
Source: Flickr user Michael Josh Villanueva

Writing things down is terribly slow.

Typing is fast.

Interestingly, this is precisely why handwriting is the optimal way to learn.

This conclusion was reached by Dr. Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Dr. Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA in their research paper titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking”. The paper investigated just how terrible laptops are for learning new material in the classroom.

From the paper’s abstract, the two scientists wrote:

In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

The ability to take rapid notes is what makes typing so terrible for learning – your brain doesn’t have time to digest the material.

By slowing things down, you actually speed up learning.

Here’s why this happens: if a fast typist (read, every single college student) is sitting in a lecture room, he or she will be able to quickly type down almost every word from the lecture. The problem is, regurgitating information isn’t taxing on the brain. Previous studies have shown that the brain likes to take the easiest path, so it ignores most of what you type.

In contrast, there’s no way you can hand-write every single word down. The lactic-acid buildup in your wrist won’t allow it. This compels you to be more selective. The very process of selecting that information forces your brain to pay attention to it. It’s like if a caveman is forced to pick the safer of two paths, that route will be etched into the brain, even if unconsciously.

The benefits of learning by handwriting has been extensively documented by educationalists and psychologists, but it’s quickly becoming a lost art.

“This is one of the first demonstrations of the brain being changed because of that practice”

In 2012, psychologist Dr. Karin James from Indiana University conducted a curious study titled “The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children” that explored on how undeveloped brains of children react to different learning environments. Here’s how the New York Times described what she did in the study (emphasis are mine):

Children who had not yet learned to read and write were presented with a letter or a shape on an index card and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: trace the image on a page with a dotted outline, draw it on a blank white sheet, or type it on a computer. They were then placed in a brain scanner and shown the image again.

…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.

Dr. James also measured the learning areas of brains of children who merely traced the letters.

The result?

“The activation was significantly weaker.”