The benefits of handwriting

As someone who is pretty much attached to their iPhone and laptop keyboard, I had the disturbing experience a few weeks ago of developing a cramp trying to take notes by hand. As many of us get increasingly used to abandoning our pens and typing up our notes, we should keep some of the following science in mind:

The New York Times cited a study “that followed children in grades two through five, Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard are all associated with distinct and separate brain patterns — and each results in a distinct end product. When the children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.”

Scientific American wrote about new research by “Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more.  Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, 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 used took notes with their laptops.”

Finally, Shannon Bohle, writing for Scilogs, is worried that a failure to teach children to write or even read cursive handwriting will prevent them from being able to access the knowledge contained in centuries worth of human knowledge dating from before the dominance of the typewriter in the Twentieth Century. She says:

“‘Cursive illiteracy’ is a serious blow to the future study of a variety of branches of history, including diplomatics, paleography, genealogy, and the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine. It would also have a devastating effect upon the usefulness of archival and manuscript repositories and place an impossible burden on them for transcription services. We see this now with documents currently written in Latin and Greek, which are only available beyond the interesting images that need no translation, to specialized scholars, usually PhDs, most of whom today in the US did not have to learn these classical languages in school.”

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