Saturday, January 26, 2013

Highlighting versus Typing versus Handwriting

Highlighting is in the news. There are quite a few articles that report on a report that claims highlighting is useless. This is not new. Take the following blog entry:
The key point above is that meaning improves the reliability of your memory. As such, the simple act of highlighting does nothing more than make portions of your text book (or notes) yellow. The act of highlighting doesn’t change the memory process at all. Rather, it makes it easier for you notice that part of the text again in the future. If you don’t actually think about the passage you highlight though, then when you come across the yellow block in the future, you are unlikely to recall why you highlighted it.
I could not agree more. But then the autor goes on to claim that
You are much better off writing notes in a notebook than you are highlighting. Notice that I state “writing” rather than “typing” too. I chose that word deliberately. The reason I suggest writing, is that writing with a pen or pencil requires deliberate thought, and though it is a motor skill regulated by Procedural memory, when you are paraphrasing and shaping the words, you are actively using your semantic memory too, thus writing serves as a dual-coding exercise. Typing, on the other hand (ha, ha, no pun intended), is a skill that for most college students anyways, is automatic. It’s something you can do without deliberate thought, thus it is regulated primarily by Procedural memory. You can type and think of other things. So if you are reading and typing your “notes” you are not processing the material as deeply as you would be if you were hand-writing them. In short, highlighting and typing are time-savers, but not memory-improvers. If your aim is recall, then stick with an old-fashioned pen or pencil.
It would be interesting to know whether there are any empirical studies supporting the claim that handwriting is better than typing. If they are, they are not mentioned here. But I doubt a priori that there is a difference between the "motor skill" of writing with pen or pencil or the motor skill of typing. Both are automatic (in so far as they are motor-skills) and both of them require procedural thought or procedural memory in so far as they are not. It's true: "You can type and think of other things." But it's also true that you can write, or drive, or ... Substitute what you like ... And think of other things. Mind you, it may well be that there are individual differences. I just don think they are as fundamental as this blog article suggests they are.

Just as David Foster Wallace may have thought he had better (or different) ideas while handwriting, but not really have had any ideas he would not have had by working with a computer, some people may think they remember better when they write their notes by hand.

If your aim is recall, repetition is your friend. Go over the notes, review them, ask questions about them, use them in arguments, connect them up with other notes, index them, etc., etc. Active engagement at more than one occasion is key. Whether handwritten or typed, notes that have no function will soon be forgotten.

5 comments:

welcometosherwood said...

I too am skeptical that there is a difference between handwriting and typing with regard to memory or learning. The key is the paraphrasing -- understanding what you're capturing well enough to restate it in a different way. In fact, the advantages of typing a note (into a computer) seem to me to make typing more effective as a way to capture "learning":

1. As typing is easier and faster, I'm more likely to type a note than I am to write it, especially if I'm paraphrasing, which is enabled by the ease of editing on a computer as opposed to editing a hand-written note.

2. As I'm more confident that I'll be able to find the note in the future when it is in a searchable system, I am more likely to make the note.

3. I can more easily associate the note in a computer with other related topics, which helps understanding and insight.

4. I can carry many notebooks worth of notes with me in my laptop or even with my iPad Mini. This keeps such information more readily available for review.

Handwriting a note has it's place. I think if I were in the classroom, I'd prefer to handwrite my notes and then transcribe them to computer later... Of course, I never had that opportunity back when I was in college. I have long wondered how much more joy I would have taken from learning if I did.

MK said...

We think alike. I also think that I would have taken much more pleasure in learning, if computers had been available, and if could have at least transcribed my notes to computer. But i would perhaps also have taken them directly on the computer.

I do not agree with the increasing number of colleagues who prohibit students from using computers in the class room. Sure, some people will surf the Internet or do e-mail, but nothing forces them to pay attention when they have no electrocnic devices available. Learning is not about "forcing."

cognitioneducation said...

Hello readers & writers,
Erica, from “cognitioneducation” here. I am delighted that you read my post on memory closely enough to comment on it and thought I'd do you the same favor and reply back. As I note in my "about" statement on my blog, research does back up what I write about, however I've left formal citations out of my on-line writing to make the posts easier to read. With my blog I do not aim to replicate textbooks or scientific articles (though note that I am a professor of psychology), rather I aim to stimulate discussion outside the academy. So thanks again, for giving me the opportunity to engage.

That said, research does support the position that writing by hand and typing on a keyboard are regulated differently - of course both overlap but the differences are important to think about in academic contexts, where the goal is to integrate new topics into long term memory so that you can use them later in new ways. Some examples:

1. Neuroscience studies that examine children learning to write are showing different patterns of activation in relevant areas of cortex, such that writers’ patterns resemble adults’ whereas typists’ patterns do not.

2. Studies looking at students learning a second language show that learning characters by writing vs. typing yields more or less flexibility in interpreting poorly written exemplars (e.g., on a memory test), such that writers were more flexible and could better identify poorly written characters.

3. Children who type in school rather than write, when compared to their peers who write, are less able to "prove they are not a robot" when asked to online (something I have to do in order for this post to be accepted here).

4. And finally, anecdotally (since anecdotes often "stick" better than research results) I've lost count of how many times I've had students in class who've begun the term taking notes on their computers and have struggled, and at my suggestion to change to writing have dramatically improved.

When it's an anecdote alone, you can dismiss it and say something to effect of "well it's not the typing vs. writing, but rather the fact they came to office hours, or the wake-up call that they were failing, or whatever" but when research and anecdote begin to converge, we should take note and that's beginning to happen here. That is, research examining these issues is relatively new, since the need to know is also relatively new and as more accumulates it will surely continue to shape our thinking on the matter. I feel that enough exists for us to begin taking the findings seriously though. Especially since school districts in the US are starting to eliminate handwriting from elementary school curricula and are replacing it with keyboarding. Dialogue on the potential developmental implications of these decisions need to (a) be had, and (b) informed by research, and research exists.

When the conversation is about professions rather than students, the conversation changes though. Indeed, when keyboarding, much can be done and done quickly. But developmentally, we can't assume that novices and experts "think alike" -- there's plenty of research suggesting that's faulty reasoning too.

To the final point about attention as well, sure, it’s true that students can disengage not matter the implement. That is, sure, students can passively scribble down notes without thinking just as they can passively type too. And the alternative may also happen – students can engage actively while typing too, but research suggests that the more of a novice they are, the more they may be shortchanging themselves in the long run. Thus if we think about it in terms of opportunity costs, the potential cost of typing, when you are a novice, is greater. So why take the risk?

MK said...

Thank you very much for the detailed comments. I probably misunderstood what you were up to.

To start off, when you say "students," how old are they? I was talking about university (graduate and undergraduate), not first, second or even fifth graders). I think that makes a big difference. For one thing I talk about accomplished typists, not children who are struggling with this. I am also talking about people with much more mature brains (adults or near-adults).

I am not interested in children.

I am bilingual (German-English) and I have never met a child who learned to master a second language on the basis of formal classes (unless they came from a different language community and had to accommodate themselves to a new language by total immersion). This includes my grand children (anecdotally).

I am sorry, if this sounds dogmatic, but it appears to me we are comparing apples and oranges.

Still, I never meant to dispute the claim that "that writing by hand and typing on a keyboard are regulated differently." The question for me was how differently (and now also: at what age); and how much difference does this make to learning, or perhaps more importantly to me, to thinking and writing. I do teach philosophy, I am sorry to say :). So I can't claim expertise, but I am trying to keep abreast of developments in cognitive science. So I am open to being enlightened.

cognitioneducation said...

To your question about age: really the variable of importance is expertise not age. Kids are likely candidates for use in novice - expert research. That said, some participants in the studies I refer to are children, others are undergraduates; the common thread is that they are novices at a literacy skill, a skill that can engage the hand and mind via shaping letters and words or via punching little keys. The other variable of importance, as you aptly note in your original comments about my post, is attention / active engagement (which I also address in my original post). Right now the state of the art is at looking at single factors; studies evaluating the possible interaction between the two factors (expertise and depth of engagement) have yet to emerge from the annals of social-science (and I have yet to find a senior who is willing to take it on as a thesis project...).

The dependent variable in these discussions also matters. If you are considering quality of expression rather than learning to write (whether in your first language as a child or as a second language as a college student; noting as well that learning to speak a language and learning to write a language occur differently; the research I cite is about learning to write -- I'm not sure whether you are referring to speaking or literacy in your own personal & familial experience), the research is mixed (some favors writing, other studies favor keyboarding). But if the dependent variable is learning content (i.e., a memory test), then the research to-date suggests writing. However, as I said before, the research is new, and there is more yet to be done. I can think of several combinations worth exploring: for example, it is not yet clear whether an interaction might happen such that writing helps for novices in a memory task, whereas it doesn't matter for experts; or it could even be that you'd find a cross-over interaction such that experts learn more from typing, whereas novices learn more from writing. Again, the outcome you are considering matters too. In my blog, the outcome I was writing about was "learning" where learning is defined as showing knowledge acquired on en exam.

So I don't think we are really talking about different comparisons in as much as the details of each of our back-stories aren't imminently clear in our posts nor our exchanges. I appreciate your willingness to discuss (such as this is) though. All best,
Erica