by Olivia Redmann, PharmD, PGY-1 Community-Based Pharmacy Resident, The University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy
In an age dominated by technology, handwriting notes may seem antiquated. With laptops, tablets, and smartphones at our fingertips, the convenience of typing notes during lectures has quickly become the norm. In my own experience, I find handwriting notes better for learning. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who taught lectures by handwriting notes with the students in real-time and projecting her notes on a screen for us to follow along as we wrote our own notes. She explained that she wrote her college thesis by hand and found that taking a more creative and hands-on approach to note-taking was beneficial in learning and processing the information. This experience changed my note-taking and studying habits. I found that taking a more “hands-on” and creative approach to note-taking allowed for better reading comprehension and improved my test scores. But is my personal experience supported by the data? That’s what led me to dive deeper into the topic of handwriting vs. typing notes. I wanted to know what impact each note-taking strategy has on students’ ability to learn and digest information.
One of the primary benefits of handwriting notes is its positive impact on memory retention. Multiple studies have shown that the physical act of writing engages the brain in a way that typing does not. A study published in the Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience used three groups of participants to perform a schedule-recording task using either a paper notebook, an electronic tablet, or a smartphone, followed by a retrieval task. The study demonstrated that “brain activations related to memory, visual imagery, and language during the retrieval of specific information, as well as the deeper encoding of that information, were stronger in participants using a paper notebook than in those using electronic devices.”1 The investigators concluded that the use of a paper notebook and handwriting can affect higher-order brain functions, which could have important implications for learning. In contrast, typing notes often encourages a more passive approach to information processing. The ease of copying (and pasting) notes word-for-word from a screen can lead to shallow understanding and limited retention. Handwriting forces us to synthesize and paraphrase information, promoting a deeper understanding of the material. This led me to believe that active engagement with the material has the potential to significantly improve our ability not only to remember but also to apply what we have learned.
Using a computer or smartphone to take notes can lead to distractions. The allure of social media and countless other digital temptations are just the click away. Handwriting notes demands a higher level of concentration and attention, it does not generate the distractions that come with digital devices. When we write by hand, we are less likely to veer off course and more likely to stay fully engaged with the material in the present moment.2 Additionally, the tactile feedback of pen and paper provides a sensory experience that is different in key ways (pun intended) compared to typing. This sensory connection can lead to a more profound sense of connection with the content, helping learners stay present and attentive throughout an entire lecture or class period.3
Typing notes on a device can encourage the unproductive habit of multitasking. It’s just too easy to switch between a note-taking app and other applications. This constant task-switching can hinder deeper learning and comprehension. In contrast, handwriting notes on paper eliminates the temptation to check emails, browse the internet, or engage in unrelated tasks. The absence of digital distractions during note-taking allows for sustained focus on the subject matter at hand. This undivided attention fosters a more immersive learning experience, enabling students to absorb information more effectively.
Another infamous study done by Mueller and Oppenheimer took a different approach to understanding why typing notes is detrimental to one’s learning. One of the key arguments against typing notes is that electronic devices present numerous distractions to students. But perhaps it’s the way that students take notes when they type isn’t as effective from a learning perspective. In their study, Mueller and Oppenheimer allowed participants to use their normal note-taking strategy in the classroom. What they were interested in was seeing how the information was actually recorded. Mueller and Oppenheimer found that laptop note-takers had a tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words. This may be another explanation for why typing notes is detrimental to learning.4
For me, handwriting notes offer a level of customization and creativity that typing cannot match. With a pen and paper, I can easily create diagrams, charts, or sketches to illustrate complex concepts. I have the opportunity to use different colors, underline, highlight, or circle key points to make them stand out. These visual aids not only enhance comprehension but also make the notes more visually memorable. Thus, the act of physically writing on paper (and perhaps using a stylus on a tablet device) allows for greater personalization of notes. In addition, notes in the margins and annotations all add a unique layer of engagement with the material that most digital note apps can match. This personal touch makes notes more meaningful and easier to revisit when it comes time to study before the exam. Lastly, handwriting notes may offer long-term learning benefits. When we write by hand, we create a tangible record of our thoughts and ideas.
In an increasingly digital world, the benefits of handwriting notes should not be underestimated. While typing offers convenience and speed, the cognitive and learning advantages of putting pen to paper—or stylus to tablet—are clear. Handwriting notes enhances memory retention, improves focus and attention, fosters creativity, and reduces the risk of distractions. The act of summarizing information during note-taking promotes deeper understanding, which can have a lasting impact on one’s knowledge retention. To truly harness the power of the written word in the digital age, we should consider embracing the time-tested practice of handwriting notes to enhance learning.
- Umejima K, Takuya I, Takahiro Yi, and Sakai KL. Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 15 (2021). doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158
- Tamm S. Handwritten vs. Typed Notes: Which Is Really Better? E-Student (blog), March 24, 2021.
- Ibañez F. Study Reveals the Advantages of Taking Notes by Hand. Observatory - Institute for the Future of Education (blog), June 7, 2021.
- Mueller PA and Oppenheimer D. The Pen Is Mightier than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science 2014; 25(6): 1159–68.