Thursday, June 12, 2014

Handwritten Memories?

There is a meme making the rounds on the Internet which mainly consists of the claim that handwriting is superior to the keyboard in committing things to memory. Somehow, some people surmise there are possible links between the psychomotor action of handwriting and memory itself. This is what makes handwriting special. I am not a cognitive psychologist, but a skeptic. Such special links are possible, but I don't think they have been established. Furthermore, there is another explanation. In a recent article of the Boston Globe, Ruth Graham reports on research that purports to show that in memory tasks there is such a thing as "desirable difficulty." Taking verbatim notes by hand is more difficult in handwriting than it is with the keyboard. You just can't keep up as much as you can with the keyboard. So, you have to evaluate, select, and organize what you write down. In other words you have actively engage the material in a way that someone with a keyboard does not have to engage with it (and therefore usually does not). "'Because laptop users are better able to keep up with the pace of speech, it turns out, they are more susceptible to transcribing lectures verbatim, a style of note-taking that previous experiments has shown to be inferior. “If students are taking down notes on everything that’s said in class, they’re just functioning as a stenographer,' said Michael Friedman, a cognitive psychologist who is conducting note-taking research as a fellow at the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching."

This explanation does not appeal to "possible links" between psychomotor action and memory at all. It attributes the difference to conscious engagement with what is taken down. There is a difference between taking things down and taking note of things. And there is nothing inherently bad about the keyboard. You just have to learn not to use it like a stenographer. This should be possible. In fact, it is desirable that we all develop this skill. Students should just as little be encouraged to think that learning is equivalent to stenography as to believe that photocopying pages is equivalent to reading them.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The idea that writing by hand is in and of itself a better way to learn is kind of crazy if you were to ask me. I don't my education really began until I started using computers, which made writing my own thoughts and interpretations so much easier. Before that, writing by hand, or even typewriter, was so tedious, I avoided it whenever I could.

I might, however, agree with those who would argue it is better to teach children penmanship in the early grades, rather than keyboarding skills... or perhaps both. I can believe that having to form an A or a Z and everything in between, may be a better way to instill the alphabet and give them a better appreciation for language (well, I at least might be persuaded that's the case).

Alessandro said...

Apart from the fact that in my case I can write much faster than typing,
in all my notetaking I notice that what I like most - and allows me to memorize better what I wrote - is the possibility to place text snippets around the page, circle them, connect them by arrows mindmap-like, draw figures,...
BTW I also tried a lot of handwriting apps on the ipad and it's maybe getting there, but so far nothing beats by trusty fountain pen