The importance of handwriting is becoming better understood

From The Economist:

wo and a half millennia ago, Socrates complained that writing would harm students. With a way to store ideas permanently and externally, they would no longer need to memorise. It is tempting to dismiss him as an old man complaining about change. Socrates did not have a stack of peer-reviewed science to make his case about the usefulness of learning concepts by heart.

Today a different debate is raging about the dangers of another technology—computers—and the typing people do on them. As primary-school pupils and phd hopefuls return for a new school year in the northern hemisphere, many will do so with a greater-than-ever reliance on computers to take notes and write papers. Some parents of younger students are dismayed that their children are not just encouraged but required to tote laptops to class. University professors complain of rampant distraction in classrooms, with students reading and messaging instead of listening to lectures.

A line of research shows the benefits of an “innovation” that predates computers: handwriting. Studies have found that writing on paper can improve everything from recalling a random series of words to imparting a better conceptual grasp of complicated ideas.

For learning material by rote, from the shapes of letters to the quirks of English spelling, the benefits of using a pen or pencil lie in how the motor and sensory memory of putting words on paper reinforces that material. The arrangement of squiggles on a page feeds into visual memory: people might remember a word they wrote down in French class as being at the bottom-left on a page, par exemple.

One of the best-demonstrated advantages of writing by hand seems to be in superiornote-taking. In a study from 2014 by Pam Mueller and Danny Oppenheimer, students typing wrote down almost twice as many words and more passages verbatim from lectures, suggesting they were not understanding so much as rapidly copying the material.

Handwriting—which takes longer for nearly all university-level students—forces note-takers to synthesise ideas into their own words. This aids conceptual understanding at the moment of writing. But those taking notes by hand also perform better on testswhen students are later able to study from their notes. The effect even persisted when the students who typed were explicitly instructed to rephrase the material in their own words. The instruction was “completely ineffective” at reducing verbatim note-taking, the researchers note: they did not understand the material so much as parrot it.

Many studies have confirmed handwriting’s benefits, and policymakers have taken note. Though America’s “Common Core” curriculum from 2010 does not require handwriting instruction past first grade (roughly age six), about half the states since then have mandated more teaching of it, thanks to campaigning by researchers and handwriting supporters. In Sweden there is a push for more handwriting and printed books and fewer devices. England’s national curriculum already prescribes teaching the rudiments of cursive by age seven.

However, several school systems in America have gone so far as to ban most laptops. This is too extreme. Some students have disabilities that make handwriting especially hard. Nearly all will eventually need typing skills. And typing can improve the quality of writing: being able to get ideas down quickly, before they are forgotten, can obviously be beneficial. So can slowing down the speed of typing, says Dr Oppenheimer.

Virginia Berninger, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is a longtime advocate of handwriting. But she is not a purist; she says there are research-tested benefits for “manuscript” print-style writing, for cursive (which allows greater speed) but also for typing (which is good practice for composing passages). Since students spend more time on devices as they age, she argues for occasional “tuning up” of handwriting in later school years.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG admits that he has been using a keyboard to create letters, words and paragraphs for so long, his handwriting has degenerated to the point that he doubts anyone else could read it. And, sometimes PG has trouble reading what he has hand-written a day or two previously.

5 thoughts on “The importance of handwriting is becoming better understood”

  1. Every year in the summer, I have to study material about health insurance for my certifications. That is both a general test (AHIP) and individual for the specific companies that market it.
    I’ve tried computer notes, and they are not NEARLY as effective as handwritten notes (I do mostly use block printing for legibility).
    This is despite the fact that I have created stories strictly on the computer – use of those does not inhibit my creative writing process.
    I suspect that it has to do with the portion of the brain used. In the case of cursive or block printing, it may lie in using brain parts also used in drawing. Similar to the way that memorizing in verse, acronyms, or song improves retention and understanding, the brain is a marvelous mechanism whose actions should be respected.
    However it happens, for most students, it works impressively well. As a former teacher, I’ve found that just reading along with a Powerpoint, or taking a picture of notes on a board just don’t work for most students, and may contribute to the startling loss of comprehension and retention displayed in recent years

  2. “Handwriting—which takes longer for nearly all university-level students—forces note-takers to synthesise ideas into their own words”
    There’s no reason that note-taking on a laptop or other device can’t be used the same way. Type what you understand, don’t just be a stenographer typing verbatim.
    Like PG, sometimes I can’t read my own handwriting but when I type my notes of what I grok of the lesson I’m absorbing it gets into my head better than just trying to listen and memorize.

  3. The time fast approaches when only a few specialists will be able to read and interpret documents written by the Founding Fathers or even the letters left to us by our great-grandparents. To the great mass of us they will be as indecipherable as hieroglyphics. The most unsettling aspect of this is how few people seem to care.

  4. When I am stuck for a word while typing, I pick up a pencil and write the word I am looking for. If that doesn’t work, I hand write the sentence or phrase. It’s very effective.

    The same thing happens if I speak the sentence. I suspect various combinations of circuits are at play.

    • I suspect various combinations of circuits are at play.

      Exactly. Gore Vidal could only write his novels in longhand and his essays on a keyboard.

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