BALTIMORE, Md. — Taking notes with a plain old pen and paper is becoming more antiquated by the day. However, a new study finds handwriting is actually the superior learning option, beating out both typing and watching videos when it comes to quickly picking up new information. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University report that handwriting is “surprisingly faster and significantly better” for learning certain skills.
“The question out there for parents and educators is why should our kids spend any time doing handwriting,” says senior author Brenda Rapp, a Johns Hopkins professor of cognitive science, in a university release. “Obviously, you’re going to be a better hand-writer if you practice it. But since people are handwriting less then maybe who cares? The real question is: Are there other benefits to handwriting that have to do with reading and spelling and understanding? We find there most definitely are.”
Pen and paper triples learning speed?
A group of 42 participants took part in the study. Researchers taught each person the Arabic alphabet after separating them into three learning groups: pen and paper, typing, and video watching. After all participants had been “introduced” to an Arabic letter via a short video, subjects had to attempt to absorb the new information according to their assigned learning group. The typing group had to find the letter they just saw on a keyboard. The video group saw an on-screen flash of a letter and had to answer if it was the same letter they had just seen. The handwriting group had to copy the letter with pen and paper.
By the time participants across all three groups had finished six “learning sessions,” pretty much everyone was able to recognize the letters. However, the writing group reached this level much faster than the other two groups, after an average of just two learning sessions.
Next, study authors set out to see if any of the groups could “generalize” their new knowledge. In simpler terms, while it’s great that they could identify the Arabic letters they had just learned, could they actually use them to write, spell new words, and recognize unfamiliar words? The writing group excelled in all three of those categories to a much larger degree than either the typing or watching groups.
“The main lesson is that even though they were all good at recognizing letters, the writing training was the best at every other measure. And they required less time to get there,” explains lead author Robert Wiley, a former Johns Hopkins University Ph.D. student who is now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
Ultimately, the handwriting group showed far more of the skills necessary for expert adult-level Arabic reading and spelling.
Why do our brains react so well to paper?
As far as why handwriting is a cut above when it comes to learning, study authors believe it is because writing reinforces both visual and aural lessons. More specifically, they say that the very act of writing something down creates a “perceptual-motor experience” that fosters “richer knowledge and fuller, true learning.”
“With writing, you’re getting a stronger representation in your mind that lets you scaffold toward these other types of tasks that don’t in any way involve handwriting,” Wiley adds.
While these findings involved only adults, researchers are confident their work applies to children as well.
“I have three nieces and a nephew right now and my siblings ask me should we get them crayons and pens? I say yes, let them just play with the letters and start writing them and write them all the time,” Wiley concludes.
The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.