Why writing by hand is still the best way to retain information
Picture this: it’s a work day at an enterprise payments processing company, and there is a critical data engineering task that needs to be completed. In this case, I’m the data engineer who needs to finish the task, but I am missing information necessary for my data model to be finished. I heard the information in a meeting. It was discussed in the daily standup. I have some vague typed notes, but I can’t recall the technical details I need to finish my work. No one is available to answer my question. It’s then that it hits me: I should have written down notes by hand during the meeting.
Writing notes by hand would have given me several different tangible resources that could help me find the critical missing information: a stronger memory of the meeting I was in, the gaps in the details of the discussion that occurred, and the notes themselves that would help me trigger a stronger recall of the events just by reviewing them on paper. Detailed typed notes would not help my recall and retention of the information in the meetings in the same way that notes written by hand would, though they would have been helpful.
It’s hard to keep documentation accurate for a whole organization or even a team with day-to-day process, programming, business, and client changes at the micro and macro levels. But as individuals who consume new information on a minute-by-minute basis, we can learn what we need to with more information retention, cognitive recall, stronger reading comprehension, and a tactile, visual memory of the information we consumed just by hand writing our notes. Writing by hand still remains the most powerful way to learn and retain information.
Writing by hand creates stronger reading comprehension
It would come as no surprise to most people that human beings are visual learners. This applies even to writing, though at first written words and visual learning may seem different. When a person thinks of “visual learning”, what may be pictured are videos, images, and other forms of graphic information and media. Yet letters and words are visual representations of a mutually-agreed upon social communication form: written language.
When a young human is learning to read, they must first learn to recognize the different shapes called “letters” that belong to their native alphabet. A letter means nothing to a person who does not know what sound or function that letter is supposed to represent in language. So as human beings, before we learn what a word is, we first must learn that the graphical representation of a letter means something. We must also learn the differences between individual letters as well as variations in the shapes, sizes, and styles of those letters.
In a 2012 study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education, researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt observed of pre-literate children, “When children begin to print, their motor output (of a letter) does not conform to prototypical lettering: each output (which is also the perceptual input) can be said to be noisy relative to the model.” Despite the fact that the children’s recreation of a letter was messy compared to the letter model, their brains still accurately recognized that the letter they drew was the same one they attempted to copy. As James and Engelhardt said, the children recognized these letters “presumably because the children themselves created them.” This is visual learning and acumen: the children needed to learn what an individual letter looked like in its various “noisy” and exemplary forms in order to identify and comprehend that letter in the future, regardless of its representation.
Handwriting is a unique expression of each person who learns to write; they represent letters and words as a written output of what they perceive those letters to be. James and Engelhardt showed in their study that this repetitive, creative handwriting also creates stronger reading comprehension and maturity of language recognition. “The most novel result of our ROI analysis,” say James and Engelhardt, “is that visual processing of letters is affected by specific motor experience—the act of printing a letter”.
Writing by hand creates a tactile information recall
One of the most important parts of learning new information is the ability to retain it and recall it later when it is relevant. Writing by hand on paper creates a tactile, personalized experience each time a person takes notes. The complex experience of hand writing on paper contains a multitude of variable elements: the creativity of an individual’s written representation of language, the texture of the paper itself, the fine motor skills needed to translate thoughts into written language, the engagement of the physical senses, and even the reading comprehension strength that we learned of earlierAll of these complexities create a stronger memory of the information that is taken in during the note taking.
There have been a few scientific studies done on the subject of information processing through digital note taking and notes taken by hand. A recent study led by neuroscientist Professor Kuniyoshi Sakai at the University of Tokyo published in March 2021 showed that subjects who recorded calendar event information on paper showed more brain activity than subjects who recorded the same information onto a smartphone when they attempted to recall details about that calendar information later. And they recalled/entered the information 25% faster when writing it by hand.
Professor Sakai suggests that analog and paper learning experiences cannot be mimicked by the uniform ways in which digital devices represent information. “Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin,” says the neuroscientist. That stronger tactile memory is easier for the brain to recall later on even when the paper isn’t present later; so is the information the brain associates with that learning experience.
Typing doesn’t have the same cognitive effects
We know that typing does not engage the brain with the same level of cognitive interaction as handwriting for various reasons. This has been a hot topic in the early education sphere around the world for over a decade as typed notes and digital notepads become more and more popular in classrooms. In fact, replacing handwriting with typing notes could be detrimental to early literacy skills because it lacks the creativity necessary for strong reading comprehension and faster note-taking.
In a study from the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology , Professor Audrey van der Meer confirms that a keystroke on a keyboard lacks the creativity of handwriting and won’t challenge memory the way that writing by hand does. Two professors from University of Umeå, Sweden champion writing by hand for students as a cognitive process necessary for the best learning experience: “Think of writing as learning an instrument: separate skills…need to be practiced in order for the player to become independent of the mechanics and allow for full expression of…the meaning.”
Although typing notes can be useful and even faster for some note-takers, ultimately it does not have the cognitive, tactile, memory, or visual cognitive effects that people can get when they write by hand. Typing notes can be good, but it won’t make it easier to remember what was said later on.
Proceed with caution
Perhaps you’re like me and you already take notes by hand sometimes. I hope you’ve been writing down the parts of this blog that you want to remember if that’s the case! If not and you also like to type sometimes like me, be nice to your hands as you begin your handwritten note journey again. Be prepared to feel challenged physically and mentally as you develop a new practice. Spend some money on a notebook you like, with paper that feels good against the rough scratch or smooth roll of your favorite pen. Those tactile moments will live in your mind when you want the information again later.
Writing by hand remains the best way to take in new information. It helps with reading comprehension, creativity, memory, and information retention in ways that are unmatched by other learning tools. Your writing, your shorthand, and your notes that look incomprehensible to others are a special part of your processing that help you learn in your way. So go ahead and get writing. By hand, of course.Tags: memory, notes, second brain
I completely agree. I, very often, find myself envisioning the notes I took even if they are not in front of me. I’ve always taken hand written notes. If I need to then share them, I type them up for everyone and re-organize as necessary so they are easier for others to understand.
Very good article! Insightful to say the least. I wonder how note-taking on digital e-Ink tablets like the reMarkable would compare with actual paper writing. In theory, the two should be very similar (i.e. the eInk tablets allow you to use a pen but lack the actual pen-on-paper feeling although it is simulated).
Yes, I wonder too! This is an important question.
No. My memory is still the quickest way to recover information and understand it. At least it is for me. Thank you
love him first site
This is an interesting article – but not for what you might think. The author (an IT professional) cites papers showing writing improves learning in children. Then says using a hand-written calendar improves recall 25%. Finally makes the leap that handwriting notes in adults improves recall. This is not a valid conclusion.
It depends on your goals. Some studies *do* indicate better recall for handwritten notes. However, recall is not always the goal. Because digital “organize nothing, search everything” will result in better “recall” with digital notes. And digital notes are more easily re-organized.
I love my dead-tree journals and am an avid Bullet Journaler. I’ve switched completely to digital notes, however. Because they sync across all my devices, are malleable, and are infinitely searchable. I keep my paper journal handy because free-hand drawing still has value (and I use a scanner to store the notes in PDF).
But if your goal is to retrieve valuable notes, digital wins every time. It is more permanent than paper and easier to “search.”
I’d say paper-based notes is good to “Capture” the meeting, allowing you to organize the thoughts later on and dump it in a better, searchable “digital” way.
But keep the paper notes just in case.
all true, but writing by hand doesn’t scale and, at least me, doesn’t find my notes from Last week
If you are new to handwritten notes do yourself a favor and get good paper and a good pencil. Rhodia for me is the best paper, it soft like silk. Pentel 0.9 GraphGear is the best bencil ( they have different lead sizes ). And you’ll want a pentel high polymer eraser because the erasers on the pencils are tiny.
It’s been on my wishlist for way too long to buy a nice notebook to keep on my desk, I still use to note things down on new Notepad and sticky notes tabs on my computer, and at first it seems like the quickest way but also quickly becomes difficult to manage and find and properly recall what I wrote the notes for in the first place. Just like how reading an actual physical book is far superior than reading on a Kindle, the experience of writing with pen on paper is a lot better! This article just double-confirmed my decision on going if not-full pen-paper than at least majority of my note taking activities to shift to physical notebook.
Buy a “loose leaf binder” instead. Buy a good one. When you’re done with a project, remove the sheets related to the project and store the pages in a plastic ziploc back.
That way your loose leaf binder will never become full, and you have a set of pages related to a project nicely gathered together without wasting space.
If you need to one day peruse those sheets, use a cheaper “loose leaf binder”, temporarily take out the sheets from the ziploc bag, put it in the binder, and peruse it on your convenience.
Very Interesting article. Writing on paper works better for me.
Interesting article, although I’m not sure if I agree with nor do I like the assertion that handwriting is unconditionally superior to typing in terms of note-taking. In reality it’s different for everyone, and I find typing to provide me with roughly the same amount of retention as with writing (so yes writing is good for retention), but typing allows me to do so with a fraction of the cost in time, and with other benefits that would be too expensive to do by hand. Often when I am stuck on problems, I think out-loud by typing into my notes, which means I can include valuable self reflections and realizations along with my notes, particularly forcing myself to reflect on design approaches that won’t work and why they don’t work, instead of just keeping it in my head. If I were forced to handwrite these notes (which sometimes I have been), my ability to think was severely bottlenecked by handwriting speed; I can type about 100 words per minute, but I can only write about 15-20 words per minute by hand. And I have typed in excess of 1000 words into my notes combining the analysis of this article in my own words plus my reflections and opinions on it. Let’s say my wrist would be terribly sore if I went by the latter approach 🙂
I think the ability to have more flexibility to capture information by typing beats out the tactile benefit provided by writing, at least for me. Because of the aforementioned speed issue from above, with writing you can struggle (or at least I do) to capture context that is easier to capture with typing, and this issue can possibly reduce the effectiveness of written notes as it forces you to forgo more context and keep it in your head, which you cannot guarantee you can retain unlike with if you had time to record it via typing. The extra context you save about a meeting or lecture can help index your mind in the same way as words being in certain spots on a piece of paper. Typing can also demand creativity as you need to think about which contexts are beneficial to include into your notes and what you can leave out, or shortcut/dropped words that help you keep up with a speaker or to help you move onto your main task faster.
YMMV. I cannot read my own handwriting or even hand printed (not cursive) notes the next day. Typed notes I remember better and they are Boolean searchable which enhances my thinking style. I type faster than I think and many times my hand writing speed so my typed notes are already partly summary information processed and handwriting is far slower and bogs me down cognitively. Neurodiversity needs to be acknowledged before people propose a one size fits all for children.
All very well, but for people like me who can’t read their own writing, hand written notes are useless. At least my typed notes are readable, even if they are full of spelling mistakes!
I can’t write anywhere nearly as fast as I can type, so end up missing a lot when trying to write.
Interesting article, not as clear-cut as you make ou.
One more thing: It’s easy to add drawings, lines, arrows, and other graphical/visual “idea-dumps” assists by writing on paper using pen/pencil.
I often do that. As I write things down, I will add arrows linking to previous points, add underline(s), give a star or circle a key part, etc.
Buuuut … writing by hand is slow. So for max recollection I’d suggest adding other methods that can record the meeting automatically. A video recording is ideal, but even a voice recorder will do, as you replay the recording you can also replay the meeting in your head.
I always wonder why do I always end up so many notebooks even I am not in college; as working professional. I get it now.
Indeed writing associates a photographic memory.
I’m intrigued by the likes of Remarkable (stylus on digital device) and Livescribe (“traditional” pen on specially patterned paper). Both would seem to offer the benefits of letting me write and draw freehand while also preserving those scribbles digitally – and cleaning them up. Does anyone here have useful experience of note-taking with either?
Great article, thanks, I’ve just shared it with my friends.
I used to write by hand a lot back at University. I remember going to the woods and noting down pages of ideas for my D&D sessions, eventually writing entire scenarios by hand. I also read a lot of books – paper ones. Your entry reminded me of all that and what I have, sadly, lost.
What I can say from my time back then is that I do indeed feel noting down things with my hand was more productive than typing, both for learning new material at the academy, as well as for memorizing the storylines I was preparing for my friends. It was somewhat easier to concentrate both on writing as well as reading in the traditional way. Not to mention the brain exercise in general.
I think you might have inspired me to try and restore some of that magic. I’ll actually get myself a nice, hardcover notebook and finish the book that I started reading many months ago. I love tech, in most of its forms, but there is no denying that the simplified solutions it often proposes sometimes lead to us being actually “poorer” in a number of ways.
This isn’t the kind of article I expected to find on StackOverflow, yet I am very pleasantly surprised! Thanks.
When I taught Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, I made use of this phenomenon as well as exploiting the different ways people take in information. This was back in the days of overhead transparencies, which could be written on during the lecture. I gave the students a handout with all the drawings but no labels or colors, and I started with the same diagrams.
Then as I lectured (for students who processed auditory information best), I drew in the details in different colors and labeled the diagrams (for students who learned best what they saw). All the students drew in the details, labeled the diagrams, and annotated them (for students who learned kinetically). This also required that all students write in the information associated with each diagram, solidifying their acquisition of the information.
The students who came to class and went through this process learned the material much better than is typical for a subject this difficult. Having to draw and write down everything was the keystone to the approach.
From this article, I can see that there are cognitive benefits to taking handwritten notes. But it overlooks the benefits of taking typed notes. I have many notebooks and loose sheets of paper, but it is very difficult to organise them or to locate a note that I remember taking some time ago. The huge benefit of typewritten notes is that they are instantly searchable – it takes seconds to find a note that I vaguely remember taking months or years ago. Personally I wish that more of my notes were typewritten rather than handwritten.
This article hits on a number of important points when it comes to using the handwriting medium for conceptual processing.
What I would like to have seen (or possibly seen in a future article) is a more in-depth breakdown of the merits/demerits when it comes to handwriting versus purely digital mediums.
I for one find handwriting to be vastly superior for learning, creative processing, retention, etc. the flip side is, as others have mentioned, that analog handwriting doesn’t index and scale very well. If I’m looking for specific information I wrote down on paper I have to manually go through the pages unlike information stored in a digital organization system that can be indexed and searched against. Sharing and collaboration is also an issue as typically images of notes is the only way to share analog information, which can’t be further edited by others (though this is changing somewhat) and again doesn’t allow for processing of information on textual, piece by piece, level (though this is also changing with recent image processing software).
I’ve been finding somewhat of a happy medium with the use of digital software like Goodnotes and Concepts, which allows the creation of digital content via the use of tools like a stylus. Its not quite as good as actual analog writing and doesn’t have quite the indexing and scaling capabilities of traditional digital content. I’m hoping that this medium continues to evolve and become even better over time.