Why writing by hand is still the best way to retain information

12 March

 Why writing by hand is still the best way to retain information

The way we learn and retain information has changed over the years, but one thing remains true: writing by hand is still the best way to take in new information. When you take notes by hand, you engage multiple senses, giving your brain a stronger recall of the information you consumed. It also helps with reading comprehension, creativity, memory, and information retention in ways that are unmatched by other learning tools.

Let’s look at an example of why handwriting is critical for learning and retaining information. Picture this: it’s a work day at an enterprise payments processing company and a critical data engineering task needs to be completed. As the data engineer, you are missing some of the technical details you need. You heard the information in a meeting, but all you have are some vague typed notes. With no one available to answer your question, you realize the importance of handwriting your notes during the meeting.

Writing notes by hand would have given you several different tangible resources to help you find the critical missing information: a stronger memory of the meeting, gaps in the details of the discussion, and notes that can help you trigger a stronger recall of the events just by reviewing them on paper. Detailed typed notes may not have helped your recall and retention of the information in the meetings the same way that notes written by hand would have.

The benefits of handwriting for improved reading comprehension

It’s no secret that human beings are visual learners. This applies to writing as well, 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 or media. Yet letters and words are still visual representations of a mutually-agreed upon social communication form: written language.

When a young person is starting to learn to read, one of the most important skills they must acquire is the ability to recognize the different shapes that make up their language's alphabet. These shapes, known as letters, are meaningless to someone who does not understand their sound or function. For a person to understand the meaning of words, they must first understand that the graphical representation of a letter has significance. Furthermore, they must be able to differentiate between individual letters, including variations in their sizes, shapes and styles.

A 2012 study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education highlighted the importance of visual learning in pre-literate children. Karin James and Laura Engelhardt observed how their brains could accurately recognize letters, even if the letters were “noisy” in comparison to the model letter.

Handwriting is a way of expressing oneself, as it enables a person to represent letters and words in a written form that reflects their perception of them. James and Engelhardt's study demonstrated that repetitive handwriting helps to strengthen comprehension and language recognition.

The tactile benefits of handwriting for memory retention

Taking notes by hand on paper can help with the retention and recall of new information. This is because writing by hand creates a tactile, personalised experience that contains a variety of elements. These include the creativity of written language, the texture of the paper, the fine motor skills used to express thoughts, the engagement of physical senses and the reading comprehension strength. All of these complexities lead to a better memory of the information taken in.

This was proven in a study led by neuroscientist Professor Kuniyoshi Sakai at the University of Tokyo. He found that subjects who took notes on paper had more brain activity and remembered the information 25% faster when attempting to recall the details of calendar events. Professor Sakai believes that analog and paper learning experiences are not replicated by digital devices.

The cognitive impact of keyboard use

Research has long been conducted on the role that typing plays in early education, as more and more classrooms opt to use digital notepads and typed notes. Unfortunately, this may not be the best choice for students, as the lack of creativity when typing notes could be detrimental to early literacy skills and faster note-taking.

A study at the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, conducted by Professor Audrey van der Meer, confirms that typing on a keyboard is not as beneficial to memory as handwriting. Two professors from University of Umeå, Sweden, have also echoed this sentiment, believing that handwriting is a vital cognitive process for the best learning experience.

Though typing notes may seem faster for some, it does not possess the same tactile, memory, or visual cognitive effects that come with writing by hand. Typing notes can be helpful, but ultimately will not help people remember what was said later on.

Proceed with careful consideration

If you're just starting out with handwriting, be gentle with your hands. You're embarking on a new journey and it's perfectly normal to feel a bit overwhelmed. Invest in a notebook that has nice paper that feels great against the tip of your favorite pen. Trust us, these small, tactile details will stick with you and help you when you need to recall the information later.

Writing by hand is one of the most effective ways to absorb and retain information. It helps with comprehension, creativity, memory and so much more. Plus, all the unique shorthand and scribbles that make sense only to you are a special part of how you learn best. So, jump right in and get writing – by hand, of course!