A Footnote for the Year 2020By
Looking back on this disastrous year, there was a shift that might easily escape notice but that could prove to be consequential. In virtual classrooms across the country, remote learners put aside their pencils, ballpoint pens, and markers and lifted the lids on Chromebooks and tablets and began daily keyboarding notes, homework, and tests.
Between the two usual ways we record information, handwriting and typing, there’s an inherent difference. That difference can affect how well we recall and understand the information, whether that’s in a classroom or a meeting room jotting down notes.
Typing notes doesn’t involve much processing. Neural researchers call keyboarding “nongenerative note-taking.” Part of the reason is that typing one letter is the same gesture we use for typing any letter, and those proficient at it, touch typists, don’t see or even think about the keys being struck. There’s a mental separation inherent in the process, even if you’re hunting and pecking. Handwriting, especially cursive, switches on another neural level because it involves a process of encryption using 26 unique strokes that you map on your paper.
A recent article from two researchers at the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology wonderfully sums up the difference in its title: “Only Three Fingers Write, but the Whole Brain Works.”
Researchers Audrey L.H. van der Meer and F.R. van der Weel conducted two studies, first in May 2017 and then again in July 2020. In the first experiment, they administered electroencephalograms (EEGs) to 20 young adults who were asked to type notes on a keyboard, take handwritten notes, or make drawings.
The researchers already knew from a previous observational study done in 2014 that the processing that occurs when handwriting notes was more effective than laptop recording. In that study, a group of college students was shown 30-minute TED Talks on specialized topics that weren’t common knowledge. They were given laptops or paper notebooks and were told to take notes in their usual way. At the end of each video, they were tested on factual-recall questions and conceptual-application questions.
The results showed that both types of note-takers did equally well on the recall of factual information, but the longhand note-takers performed significantly better on the conceptual questions. It was thought that the laptop note-takers were less engaged in extensive cognitive processing than the longhand participants.
The experiment seemed to validate that laptop use by the students “promotes verbatim transcriptions of lecture content,” and “verbatim notetaking typically involves relative shallow cognitive processing” (bit.ly/3jV3Lnq).
In their studies, the two Norwegian researchers added another level of measurement to the comparison. With all the participants wearing a Geodesic Sensor Net 200, full-head EEG cap, the experiment investigated electrophysiological differences in brain activity that might explain the differences.
What they concluded reaffirmed previous assumptions about nongenerative and generative note-taking. They reported, “it seems that keyboards and pens bring into play different underlying neurological processes. This may not be surprising since handwriting/drawing is a complex task that requires the integration of various skills. Children, for example, take several years to master this precise skill…. Operating a keyboard is something completely different since all one has to do is press the right key, and the typing movement is the same whatever the letter.”
When you’re handwriting your notes, there’s more going on and you’re inclined to better remember and understand what you’re taking down. The researchers make clear in their conclusions they don’t advocate banning digital devices in educational settings: The “strategies are all cognitive tasks, each serving their own benefits” (bit.ly/2GwNBmB). But they do recommend more thoughtful planning. “When to use which strategy [handwriting, typing, or drawing] is vital.” So, encourage the kids to keep the pencils and paper nearby even when working remotely, and it might not be a bad idea for you to bring a pad and pen to your next Zoom meeting. What those geodesic sensors register on a student look a lot like what’s happening as you tap on the keyboard or scribble down what you think is important.
Texting is another area where technology is having an impact on our writing. The Oxford Handbook of Cyberpsychology explains, “[Textese] allows messages to be composed more quickly, but also to express the emotion and the ‘voice’ of the message writer.” The authors promise “ongoing research will be necessary to track its changing nature.”