[ Question ]

Do you trust the research on handwriting vs. typing for notes?

by NaiveTortoise 2 min read23rd Apr 202016 comments


For a while now, I've heard the claim that "studies show" that note-takers remember content better if they take notes by hand versus on a computer. I previously took this claim on face value in part because this was before I'd heard about the replication crisis and also because I'd had personal experiences that I believed supported this claim.

In light of the replication crisis and recent experiences, I've come to be more skeptical of this research. I started to look at some of the research pop science articles on the topic cite and am skeptical of the work I've looked at so far.

In the example I link to above, they have subjects perform two tasks, a recall and recognition task for words they handwrote or typed with a multiplication task in between writing and recalling/recognizing. They find a not significant difference between recalled words for handwriting vs. typing and a barely (p-value .03) significant difference between recognized words for the two groups. However, if you look at the standard deviations for the means for the two tasks, you'll see that each mean is in the other's 1-SD range.

Furthermore, the task they describe is simple but not necessarily that relevant to what's really going on when someone takes notes on a lecture / talk. They intentionally used semantically meaningless words (for understandable reasons) whereas real-life talks hopefully have higher-level meaning and themes.

ETA (after initial posting): Just found another paper that a few pop-sci articles seem to cite. This paper covers three experiments, which are all more realistic than the one I described above. I'm only going to discuss the first here.

The first had participants watch TED talks, take notes on them (either on a laptop or by hand) and then answer a combination of "factual" and "conceptual" questions about them. At a high level, they interpret the results of this experiment as showing that laptop note-takers did as well as the by hand note-takers on factual questions but worse on conceptual questions. (However, this is only the case after they convert to z-scores. That is, the differences between raw grades are not significant.) They also find that a difference between laptop note-takers and by hand note-takers is that the laptop note-takers write more and tend to copy the lecturers words more exactly. When they control for these factors, they find a much weaker effect of note-taking medium. Their latter experiments basically try and disentangle how much note-taking medium vs. following best practices matters (interested readers can read the paper). Overall, I'd say this study maybe causes me to update a little in the direction of typing having a downside all else equal but mostly just confirms my prior that synthesizing and not just copying what the lecturer says matter more.

After seeing this, I thought, "maybe there are a lot of studies that together make a stronger case." However, I randomly sampled a few articles on the topic and they all linked to this one these two study studies!

Unless I spend more time digging into the science, I'm left to trust my own experience, which has been mixed. I do find handwriting notes is nice for the flexibility it allows for drawing diagrams, structuring things on the page, etc. However, I write really slowly and therefore have to compress what I'm writing as much as possible. This can be a benefit (and is the one the articles I read claim) if it means I'm internalizing the material better but also means that if I don't understand something well, I often don't have to time to write down the details of my confusion. Furthermore, I have a habit of never looking back at my handwritten notes unless I'm diligent about indexing them, whereas with typed notes, I can use search to find exactly what I'm looking for.

So, this leaves me interested in answers to the following two questions:

  1. Have you read the research on typing vs. handwriting? If so, do you find it compelling / trustworthy? (Links to good studies encouraged!)
  2. What have you concluded from your personal experience?


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4 Answers

I went through a few related iterations on this personally back when I was in school, and what I found was that I remembered best when it was hard to take notes.

By "hard" I mean there was some active challenge I was trying to overcome at the same time I was taking notes. For example, my retention shot up when I went from taking notes in my math classes on paper to typing them up in LaTeX, I think because it kept me engaged with the material because I kept having to deal with LaTeX while also taking my notes. Once I got good enough at LaTeX I found my retention dropped, mostly because my mind more easily wandered away because writing my notes no longer consumed all of my attention.

I went through a few iterations of this, finding ways to make taking my notes harder. Things I did included:

  • writing them in French (I only speak French poorly after studying it for 4 years in school)
  • writing them in unusual scripts
  • writing them in Sage notebooks
  • writing them in Mathcad

Eventually I ran out of ways to make taking notes harder. Coincidentally not longer afterwards I dropped out.

The obvious thing this suggests is that any benefit from handwriting notes over typing them likely comes from it being more attention consuming to write by hand. If this is not true, say because you're learning to touch type while taking notes or you take your in shorthand (handwritten or typed) while learning shorthand, then I expect higher retention using whatever method was personally hardest (most attention consuming) for the person.

I haven't read any research on it, but from my personal experience in college, if I take notes by hand, I remember the material by the end of the next semester, while if I take notes on my computer, I'm lucky if I remember the material by the end of the current semester.

I think it depends on how neat one's handwriting is. I have (or rather, had) fairly neat handwriting, so it was no problem for me to take notes by hand. However, my brother, whose handwriting is considerably worse than mine, prefers to take notes on his laptop and annotate documents on his iPad. Similarly, I had a friend who had hand tremors get a specific note from the university's disability office to allow him to bring his laptop into courses where the professor banned them for most students simply because his handwriting was completely illegible, due to no fault of his own.

Taking notes serves no purpose if they're illegible scribbles that you can't make heads or tails of at the end of the class.

Are you reproducing a text-book / full script of lecture or are you making study notes?

Personal experience:

For me, letting go of my need for everything to be neat and complete was a bit step in making notes to learn from. They don't have to be perfect, they need to be useful. A summary in short form, including the key words/points, missing out the rest.

For example, all this text taken from Wikipedia - (no need to actually read it all)

Diabetes mellitus (DM), commonly known as diabetes, is a group of metabolic disorders characterized by a high blood sugar level over a prolonged period of time.[11] Symptoms often include frequent urination, increased thirst, and increased hunger.[2] If left untreated, diabetes can cause many complications.[2] Acute complications can include diabetic ketoacidosis, hyperosmolar hyperglycemic state, or death.[3] Serious long-term complications include cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, foot ulcers, damage to the nerves, damage to the eyes and cognitive impairment.[2][5]
Diabetes is due to either the pancreas not producing enough insulin, or the cells of the body not responding properly to the insulin produced.[12] There are three main types of diabetes mellitus:[2]

Type 1 diabetes results from the pancreas's failure to produce enough insulin due to loss of beta cells.[2] This form was previously referred to as "insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus" (IDDM) or "juvenile diabetes".[2] The loss of beta cells is caused by an autoimmune response.[13] The cause of this autoimmune response is unknown.[2]

Type 2 diabetes begins with insulin resistance, a condition in which cells fail to respond to insulin properly.[2] As the disease progresses, a lack of insulin may also develop.[14] This form was previously referred to as "non insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus" (NIDDM) or "adult-onset diabetes".[2] The most common cause is a combination of excessive body weight and insufficient exercise.[2]
Gestational diabetes is the third main form, and occurs when pregnant women without a previous history of diabetes develop high blood sugar levels.[2]

Prevention and treatment involve maintaining a healthy diet, regular physical exercise, a normal body weight, and avoiding use of tobacco.[2] Control of blood pressure and maintaining proper foot and eye care are important for people with the disease.[2] Type 1 diabetes must be managed with insulin injections.[2] Type 2 diabetes may be treated with medications with or without insulin.[15] Insulin and some oral medications can cause low blood sugar.[16] Weight loss surgery in those with obesity is sometimes an effective measure in those with type 2 diabetes.[17] Gestational diabetes usually resolves after the birth of the baby.[18]

Reduced to this:

DM = G  PU/PD ↑hunger

 --> ketoacidosis.   heart, kidney, foot ulcers, neuropathy, eyes, cognative probs. 

Type 1 - insulin production  (idiopathic autoimmune beta cells pancreas)

Type 2 - insulin resistance body cells. --> progress to type 1.  ( assoc. factors weight  exercise)

Type 3 - gestational. no prev. hx.  resolves post-partum. 


diet, exercise, X-smoking (obesity sx.)

BP, foot + eye care,

insulin, oral tx 

By reading the text and then condensing it I've spent time considering the words, assessing what the key points are and absorbing along the way (using common notation that I know exactly what it means e.g. PU/PD = polyuria polydipsia = increased urination and increased drinking)

I now have an easy to scan summary to be able to reproduce the full text in an exam. I'm aware that adding words such as "normally" and "most cases" provides the caveats and cover that very little is 100% in medicine.

If you know something there's no real benefit in writing it out in full again but I still found myself adding "beta cells pancreas" to the above notes for completeness.

Whether I take notes this way by handwriting or keyboard doesn't made much difference to the learning/absorption process, but typed notes are much neater, which I like!! And more formatting options are available - easy bold, bigger fonts. Rather than the old highlighter pen.

I've found drawing flow and other diagrams and spider maps by hand is invaluable in some situations though.