Parenting Pep Talk: The Benefits of Handwriting for Learning

Dr. Jaime Black
Dr. Jaime Black

Laptops and tablets are quickly replacing old-fashioned pen and paper when it comes to note taking, but research suggests that this might not be such a good idea. It seems that writing by hand and typing on a keyboard draw on distinct brain processes. Writing by hand appears to improve processing, strengthen conceptual memory, and enhance one’s ability to generate ideas. Typing notes, on the other hand, may lead to “mindless processing,” and an increasing number of studies support this claim.

Researchers Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California experimented with a cohort of college students to see how handwritten versus typed notes impacted student performance. First they tested students on class material 30 minutes after a lecture, giving students no time to review. Both groups were able to recall facts, but the hand-writers were much better able to recall concepts and ideas. The researchers then tested the same students one week later after they were able to review their notes. Those who used longhand were significantly better able to recall facts, inferences, concepts, and to apply the material.

While the typists in the study took more copious notes, they also took verbatim notes, which led to “mindless processing.” The hand-writers were more likely to think about what went on the paper, which lead to better, more meaningful processing. According to the American Psychological Science blog, there seems to be something about pen and paper that forces students to go beyond simply hearing and recording.

A study published in Intech explains one reason why writing by hand may be a superior way to enhance performance. Writing and typing, like any physical activity, establish motor memories. The motor memory for handwriting helps an individual more effectively recognize letters and connect reading to writing. It also forces a person to reflect on what they are writing.

Interestingly, there may even be a difference between printing and cursive writing. Dr. Virginia Berninger of the University of Washington suggests that cursive may train self-control better than other forms of writing. She believes it can even help those with motor-control conditions such as dysgraphia and may help treat dyslexia. It should be noted that in Dr. Berninger’s studies of students in the second through fifth grades, both the cursive and print writers surpassed those using keyboards when it came to word production and generation of ideas.

Typing has its place in education and many things we do are effectively done using a keyboard. For example, email communications, building presentations, and preparing final papers are all primarily keyboard driven tasks. Editing is certainly easier on a computer than it is by hand! However, if the goal is to thoughtfully process and remember information, the old way really might be the best way.

Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. Jaime works with high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating various socialization groups including an improv social skills group. Visit, e-mail or call (914)712-8208.