Long live good old handwriting: an effective ‘tool’ for learning

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

It doesn’t matter whether you take notes on paper or on a digital device, right? Actually, the answer is YES, it does make a difference. Various recent research shows that it makes quite a difference and that handwriting is much more powerful for learning.

The class, lecture, presentation; or any learning event, starts. Is it OK for learners to leave their digital devices on? Hopefully we all agree that chatting, emailing, checking Facebook®, tweeting, and so on, are very distracting for learning (except of course when these applications are used with a pedagogical focus, as part of an instructional activity). However, many instructors do not feel comfortable telling their learners that they’re not allowed to take notes on their digital devices. Instructors probably worry that their learners think that they’re “old fashioned” when they prohibit the use of digital devices but the question is: What are the pedagogical consequences when allowing them in the classroom?

Let’s start with adolescents. American researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer completed three studies to identify if there’s a difference in learning outcomes when learners take notes on a computer or when they use pen-and-paper (i.e., handwriting). The results showed that learning is more effective when learners take notes with pen-and-paper. These positive effects of handwriting; that is retention of the information presented, were found for both short-term (immediately after class) and long-term (after about 2 weeks). In addition, the results were true for both factual learning and for understanding the learning content. Even more striking: it doesn’t matter if learners read their notes after class or not. The researchers conclude that handwritten notes simply work better than typed notes.

Mueller and Oppenheimer provide their thoughts on why handwritten notes are more effective than typed (on a digital device) ones. They posit that, in their studies, the notes taken on a computer in were usually literal transcripts of what the instructor had said. Most of us – in any event those of us who have been raised with the computer – type faster than we write. Therefore, while the typed notes tend to be literal transcriptions of what was said, handwritten notes force us to do something with the instructor’s words to keep up with the flow of the presentation. In other words, because we write slower than we type (unless of course you can take notes in shorthand), we need to process and adapt the content in some way. This is usually in the form of paraphrasing, abstracting from, or summarising it. Following Bloom, you could say that when writing, you need to quickly paraphrase and/or analyse and then synthesise the content.

We also need to keep in mind that, if you take notes with pen-and-paper, there is more involved than just cognitive processes. When writing, you move your hands and arms more than when you type. Timothy Smoker and his colleagues studied if these movements have any impact on memorising and recognising regular words. Interestingly, learners remember and recognise words better when they write with a pen or pencil. Apparently, the additional information provided by the muscle movements create a more complex memory trace than when typing.

Letter recognition

What about young children? How does writing or typing influence, for example, letter recognition? Marieke Longcamp and her team studied whether there’s a difference in letter recognition when children between 2 years and 9 months and 4 years and 9 months write or type letters. It turned out that, especially for older children, writing led to better letter recognition. In a follow-up study, the researchers showed that the writing advantage was stable and even stronger 3 weeks after the training.

Longcamp c.s. concluded that movement plays a key role in letter representation and therefore writing manually contributes significantly to recognising letters visually. According to the researchers the brain receives multiple signals (visual, motor and kinaesthetic) which typing does not do in the same way.

In 2012 the American researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt studied the impact of writing versus typing on brain development of 5-year olds who were not yet able to read. Using fMRI, the researchers found that writing is important for activating parts in the brain that are required for successful reading. They also concluded that “old fashioned” hand writing is critical for young children in learning how to read.

All of the presently available research evidence strongly suggests that writing is more effective than typing as part of a learning process. Therefore, Mueller and Oppenheim suggest to, “Approach the use of digital devices with caution. Despite their growing popularity, digital devices in a classroom setting might do more harm than good”.

So let’s just put a big fat question mark at all the so-called “Steve Jobs iPad schools”. It goes without saying that the question mark is handwritten with a good old sharpie.


James, K., & Engelhardt, L., (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1, 32-42.

Longcamp, M., Zerbato-Poudou, M. Velay, J. (2005). The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Acta Psychologica, 119, 67-79.

Longcamp, M., Boucardb, C., Gilhodesb, J., & Velay, J. (2006). Remembering the orientation of newly learned characters depends on the associated writing knowledge: A comparison between handwriting and typing. Human Movement Science, 25, 646-656.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25, 1159-1168.

Smoker, T. J., Murphy, C. E., & Rockwell, A. K. (2009). Comparing memory for handwriting versus typing. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 53, 1744-1747.



12 thoughts on “Long live good old handwriting: an effective ‘tool’ for learning

  1. Eva Noorduijn says:

    What about pen-enabled devices? As the students are using motion to write on their screen, would the same argument hold up? (we write slower than we type, we would need to synthesise/paraphrase what is being said – and therefore retain the information more effectively?


    • Paul Kirschner says:

      A pen-enabled device like a smartpen is the ‘same’ as a normal pen in that you write slower (except if you know steno) and must paraphrase, summarise, and so forth. It has the added advantage that you can then digitize it later. One disadvantage is that if it is then digitized if you use it in a report or homework or something that you can then just cut-and-paste and not process it at that point.


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