Handwriting vs Typing: Which Improves Learning?

Technology offers exciting and innovative tools to educators and students. However, as recent research shows, that doesn’t mean that technology fosters the process of learning.

Recent research conducted by Pam A. Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel M. Oppenheimer (University of California, Los Angeles) indicates that when students use laptops to take notes, their learning is impaired especially when compared to that of students who handwrite notes on paper.

Students who write notes on paper actually learn more than students who take notes on computers.

Why is this? Certainly, most students can type significantly faster than they can write. We would therefore expect that laptop users would record a larger volume of information than their handwriting peers. And they do. But according to Mueller and Oppenheimer, students who take notes on laptops tend to transcribe the words they are hearing verbatim rather than “processing” information and reframing it in their own words. Consequently, while the laptop notetakers prove to record more words than hand writers, in experiments, those students who wrote notes by hand retained information more successfully, had stronger conceptual understandings of taught material, and proved to be more successful in applying and integrating material than the laptop users.

Curious? Not really. When a student takes notes by hand, she is required to problem solve: She must listen, understand, and find a way to succinctly capture the essence of the information provided by the teacher. This activity fosters comprehension and retention. In contrast, because the speed which which a student types allows her to record information offered by an instructor almost word for word, she needn’t lend too much thought to the activity. Instead of thinking, she becomes a recording machine.  In other words, the laptop user is not required to do the mental “heavy lifting” that the hand writer is. Consequently, her retention is lower than that of the student who took notes by hand. Even when student subjects were first warned that their retention might be impaired by using laptops and were advised to think while transcribing, research results show intellectual deficits in students who took notes using laptops.

Mueller and Oppenheimer’s research reminds us that learning involves significantly more than receiving information and, as well, to be wise to the limitations of technology in educational situations.

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Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized plan for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and career aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and secure admission to top colleges.  

About The Author

Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.