Handwritten or Typed? The Truth About Writing Notes

It's easy for a teacher at the end of her career to hold on to the misleading conclusion that handwritten notes are better for learning than typed. All the same, it's easier for someone like me – at the beginning of a career – to speak out against such hasty conclusions.

Have you read the study on technology and writing notes published by Psychological Science in 2014? It concluded that college students participating in a Stanford study performed better after doing handwritten notes as opposed to typing on a laptop, for example. The more interesting result, however, was in the increased ability for handwritten note-takers to understand and apply concepts. The study hypothesized that this could be because of a tendency to write too verbatim when typing, resulting in less processing of the content.

When notes are handwritten, the increased processing required to produce quality work fills a capacity to apply concepts in more ways than otherwise. My issue is not with the findings and methodology of the study. It's with the chatter and headlines.

It's the technology's fault, right? What about teaching and learning? What about the fact that most students have poor work habits and teachers of college prep courses do too little to address the issue?

I'm a college prep teacher who is guilty of not doing all that I can to prepare my students to be good learners. It reminds me of what Alan November thinks about school. He says school isn't about learning how to learn. It's about learning how to be taught. This is the problem that keeps me up at night because school ought to be about learning how to learn. 

Over the years, I've collected strategies for teaching literacy for all levels. Here's my working plan to address the issue with my high schoolers.

1. Do not copy slides

Kids have a propensity for copying every word from a slide. Some worry that they won't have every bit of information to study, while some feel a sense of compliance by producing something during the class period.

Copying slides is the worst. It does nothing. I can't even get into the fact that many words on a slide are a waste of time. Follow some of the other ideas on this list to make adjustments to practice. 

2. Restate ideas

I was guilty of writing a lot of words on the slides. After learning about the danger, I realized that for my ELLs, the words could be turned into an exercise. Then, like most ELL strategies, I realized that all types of learners could benefit.

The exercise is simple. Restate the words on the slide. Teach the kids that when they use their own words, they build knowledge out of information because they comprehend what they are reading. The assessment is usually a summary of the notes using a guiding question. 

3. Make observations 

A picture is only worth as many words as anyone can think of. Plus, a thousand words is a little arbitrary to be placing value, don't you think?

How about five words worth just as much? The brain activity required to make that happen would lead to valuable learning, the kind with a healthy shelf life.

4. Ask questions

If you have a question, it must mean you aren't smart, paying attention, or achieving much, right? Wrong! If the teacher is doing her job well, the students ask questions that cannot be answered without substance or depth. Unfortunately, that's what it takes to be successful yet that's not how we measure success.

Okay, not every question will be ungoogleable (add that to your dictionary), and the fact is that kids constantly have questions – too often the wrong ones. For example, "Will the teacher think I'm stupid if I ask for clarification?" That's the wrong question. The right question would be, "What part of this problem do I not understand, and how can I ask for clarification?"

The note-taking should be personal. Students should have questions on their pages that their peers don't (not always, of course). Likewise, their pages will be dotted with different answers to questions. 

5. Draw pictures 

Sketch notes are not just a fad. Moving away from the linear approach to note-taking makes it easier to do something with the notes. It allows us to make thinking visible and show relationships.

Column notes are really popular for their organizational benefit. Whether it's half-page solution or Cornell notes, the benefit is really from the space left to make connections. Try using a column for main ideas and one for illustrations or symbols. Even basic icons and stick figures can be powerful for learning.

I once had a student who could not read or write beyond a 1st grade level (in 10th grade). He came alive in class after I encouraged him to draw pictures as notes. He answered questions and improved his scores on exams (oral administration).

6. Share and discuss notes

Some information sticks and some does not. Sharing notes through discussion, not copying, is a great way for individuals to talk through their notes and begin the summary process. It's also an activity that exercises all four language domains: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

After seven to ten minutes of note-taking, ask students to stand and share notes. This gets them out of their seats and breaks up the activity a bit. It's harder to do this with a laptop, but there are ways. For example, students can see their screens while still standing, especially if they zoom in.

7. Leave space for additions

While note-taking, students can write a question mark and leave some space to fill in information later. This is where typing notes comes in handy because space can be added at any time.

Personally, I leave a few lines where I think I may need to add something later or ask a question. When I hand write notes, I leave the right or left third of the page for questions, main ideas, or symbols representing analysis or connections.

8. Make connections

If students are doing nothing with information, it escapes the memory in less than 20 seconds. If it is practiced, it becomes part of the working memory. A simple practice could be thinking about how the new information is similar to information with which students are very familiar.

Making diagrams and graphic organizers can make connections by design (similarities and differences, non-examples, cause and effect, etc.). When students make connections, they build concepts and draw relationships among what they are learning with what they know (constructivist theory). Making their thinking visible will make the new information more permanent. Add a social activity to this process and you've given the human brain what it wants. 

9. Summarize

The sumarization piece is the most important part (or product). It's the output that brings together the notes, connections, and questions into a grouping of the details into main ideas in a package that has focus. If I said anymore, it would be redundant.

What's the answer?

A one-size-fits-all strategy does not exist. It's all about the thinking. Some learners retain and can apply more if they listen more than write, while others need to write it all down before re-reading and making connections, finding areas of confusion, and writing short or long summaries of parts or all of the notes. In other words, it's what you do with the notes that matters more than the way you take them