Many students debate over the benefit of taking notes digitally or traditionally. In favor of typing, it is extremely convenient and provides immediate results. However, working by hand often offers different benefits and utilizes different parts of the brain that offer higher memory retention and cognition. The written word at its core serves as a symbol for an object, and carefully handcrafting a picture of an object will prove more effective for memory retention than pressing buttons to create the same symbol. There is a dissonance when typing on a computer, as the student is only half engaged with the act of note taking and the absorption of information. Lastly, writing by hand requires a significant amount of editing, requiring the student to synthesise the information instead of hoarding it as one would with a laptop. This essay will be based on a 2012 paper from Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” in which they discuss the brain’s activity when engaging with both methods.

To look at it briefly, the science of handwriting compared to typing is simple. Writing can be simplified to drawing small pictures of your subject. Although we are not directly drawing the object we are trying to remember, the word serves as an interchangeable symbol. For example, the written word “dog” symbolizes the actual animal the same way a photograph or simple drawing would. They are all equal when concerning memory retention. When you think about it, of course hand crafting a visual representation of an object is going to ingrain the object in your memory more than pressing three buttons would. After conducting three studies testing students’ general understanding of content with half of the students taking notes by hand, Mueller and Oppenheimer state, “those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with their laptops.” This is certainly due to the aforementioned use of the written word as a symbol.

One might assume that because writing is a more strenuous activity that requires more mental processing, the same parts of the brain are being used for both forms of note taking. Simply put, writing requires more brain activity as opposed to a different type of activity. Handwriting and typing utilize the same three parts of the brain:  the left supramarginal gyrus, the left superior parietal lobule, and the left premotor cortex. This means that the brain is utilizing both processing and fine motor skills for each activity respectively, but writing by hand activates more sections of the temporal lobe.The temporal lobe and hippocampus are responsible for episodic memory, allowing you to store and manage information. This could be a factoid you learned in class or something as simple as the taste of a coffee you enjoyed with a friend last week. The important part is that it facilitates the retention of external information. Additionally, writing involving the complex movement of a pen in your hand requires more attention than typing. As Meuller and Oppeinheimer state in their essay, writing by hand is a more intricate and time consuming activity, thus requiring more editing down of information from ear to page. While writing notes one cannot reproduce a lecture word for word by hand. A laptop provides a much more immediate result and requires less editing, but also requires less analyzing of information. Students become familiar with the minimal movement and disengagement from typing due to high typing speed, autocorrect, and ability to immediately identify errors. As a result, typing note takers passively engage with both the lecture and note-taking, and in turn retain minimal information at the end because they are only half  invested in both activities. It’s a passive physical process typing on a computer, whereas writing by hand requires cognitive awareness and information editing. 

With handwriting, you’re synthesising information and evaluating what content is the most important, because you have less time to record. This way of thinking is purely analytical, taking only the information that is crucial. With laptop writing, the method of note taking is more verbatim, and the net of what is regurgitated into the notes is much more widespread. This can be summed up by a review of Mueller and Oppenheimer’s paper published by Scientific American Journal in 2014, stating;

“Mueller and Oppenheimer postulate that taking notes by hand requires different types of cognitive processing than taking notes on a laptop, and these different processes have consequences for learning.  Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture.  Instead, they listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.  Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy “mental lifting,” and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.” 

We can think of writing by hand as more of a survival method, taking only the essentials for what we need and using them to our advantage. Typing is more of a hoarding method, grabbing everything close to you regardless of its use. 

From a personal angle, I prefer taking notes by hand when it is more historical or process based information. However, in classes that have heavy demonstrative lectures (like our tech lab classes, for example) I find that I have to take notes on a laptop to get each step down so I’m able to effectively work within a system like photoshop. 

In conclusion, writing by hand offers many different benefits to that of typing. Although typing satisfies an immediate result and writing is a slower form of note taking, writing serves as a symbol of a word that encourages deeper memory retention. The slower form of writing requires more analytical processing and extracts only the essential information while typing resembles more of a hoarding mindset, allowing less room for absorption and retention. 

A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop

Mueller, Pam A., and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard.” Psychological Science, vol. 25, no. 6, 2014, pp. 1159–1168., doi:10.1177/0956797614524581.