Learning by Writing… by Hand

By Kevin Meyer Updated on May 18th, 2017

By Kevin Meyer

I’m an early adopter tech geek at heart, and generally am among the first to embrace a new technology. I may not go to the extreme of standing in line for a new iPhone, but I will pay to upgrade to the latest model even when I have difficulty describing the changes, let alone increased value, from the previous model.  I’ll admit I was even once an owner of an Apple Newton.  Remember the summer of 1993?  Probably not.

Vinci_-_Hammer_2A-500I love my gizmos, but there’s one area where I’m still decidedly old school. I prefer to write… by hand.

I’ve tried electronic planners and journals, but they just don’t work for me.  Instead of having to open my iPad, turn it on, select the right app, and then start writing in a somewhat clumsy manner, I just open my Moleskine and start scribbling.

Each morning before I start work I write down my top three tasks for the day and I take a moment to record some gratitude – it’s amazing how that creates focus and changes your perspective and outlook.  During the day I’ll take notes on calls, ideas, and to-do’s.  And at the end of the day I’ll review – hansei – my top three to see if I accomplished what I set out to do, and if not then why not and how I’ll improve.  I’ll record any final thoughts, which at my age is starting to be a necessity so the next morning I’ll remember where I left off.

Journaling is an incredibly powerful tool – Robin Sharma also talks about the power of journaling in this video.  But there’s another aspect of journaling that gives it power: handwriting it vs typing.  Mark Gavoor dug into this as well.

Yet, there is something more intimate and old school about hand writing.  It is a different mind, eye, hand, pen, and paper interaction and interface than the mind, eye, finger, keyboard, and screen interaction and interface.

This is also why I regularly harp on the advantages of scribbling on whiteboards over typing into “the machine” and then coercing that data onto reports or electronic displays.  When you write a production number, metric, or problem on a white board you own that number, you visually see the relationship between it and the numbers next to it, you recognize patterns and trends, and you may have to even explain it to peers standing around you.  Action can be taken immediately to change an unfavorable situation.

Typing into a computer?  Not so much.  Somehow that data is mysteriously transformed into other numbers and analyses that you may see a week or even month later and the linkage, understanding, and ownership of that relationship is lost.  You end up with a bunch of folks trained to feed the machine, and a different bunch of folks trained to supposedly interpret what the machine spits out.  The problem – and opportunity – is obvious.

The psychology behind the learning advantage of handwriting is starting to be understood.  Last week Carol Holstead wrote about an experiment where she banned laptops from her college lectures, instead requiring students to take notes by hand.

I use PowerPoint in my visual-communication course but only to outline the lecture and show examples of designs. I told students they would need to listen to what I said about each slide and selectively write down the important points. I said I believed they would remember more of my lectures by taking notes on paper.

It turned out my theory was right and now is supported by research. A study published last year in Psychological Science showed that students who write out notes longhand remember conceptual information better than those who take notes on a computer.

From that study,

The researchers, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, wanted to learn if students could recall more factual and conceptual information from notes taken longhand or from those typed on a laptop. Mueller and Oppenheimer did a series of studies using 327 students on three campuses.

Students tested right after a lecture tended to answer factual questions equally well regardless of how they took notes, but students who handwrote their notes did consistently better on conceptual questions. What’s more, when students were tested again a week later, the longhand note takers performed consistently better on both factual and conceptual questions.

There’s more detail on that and similar studies at Science Daily.

Yes there are downsides.  Handwriting is hard to search, repurpose, share, and archive.  Whiteboards are great, but difficult across multiple sites and complex (perhaps unnecessarily complex?) operations.  If I had a dime for every process I’ve come across that was supposedly too complex for a simple whiteboard and required a high-powered MRP system, where a little lean simplified the process to where a whiteboard was more than sufficient…

Is the purpose to record data and observations, or to learn?

The process of writing by hand creates understanding, ownership, reflection, and thus learning.

Write it, don’t type it.  You might be surprised with what happens.

  1. John Hunter

    March 17, 2015 - 8:37 pm

    I am also a fan of technology. And also a fan of learning and paying attention to research. Pen on paper has advantages for learning that technology has yet to equal. At the same time technology has many advantages also.

    We seem to understand the advantages of using technology fairly well but under-appreciate the advantages of pen on paper. To make sure we don’t lose out due to this bias we should think before we accept that pen on paper isn’t worthwhile.

    From a post I wrote in 2005

    “I believe, it is better to focus on less data, really focus on it. My father, Bill Hunter, and Brain Joiner, believed in the value of actually plotting the data yourself by hand. In this day and age that is almost never done (especially in an office environment). I think doing so does add value. For one thing, it makes you select the vital few important measures to your job.”

    Lots of data will be kept in computers and that makes sense. But putting pen to paper has value that we too quickly dismiss.

  2. elaine

    March 19, 2015 - 3:02 am

    I too prefer the written word for note sand ideas. I also love post-it notes for reminder, quotes and phrases I want to save for later. Evernote has a feature that allows you to photograph post-it notes and file them. This means all my post-it notes are on my smart phone, in my handwriting and I can search them. Its the perfect combination for me. I also have a Samsung note phone. I chose the specifically for the notepad and pen that is built in. If I pull them pen out, even when the phone is locked the pad pops up. I can jot a note and save it before putting the pen back. I think of it as electronic post-it notes. Its liked they designed it just for me!

  3. Brian Maskell

    March 19, 2015 - 5:40 am

    Kevin: I have been using Mindmaps for at least 20 years and mostly by hand on paper, and mostly using block capital letters (because I was told that engages the art part of your brain). It is rare day when I don’t Mindmap something or another. There are lots of mindmap programs for the PC or Mac but I have never found them helpful. The technology gets in the way of the thinking.

    But since I got an iPad I find that the experience and the thinking process is just as good as with paper. I tried every iPad mindmap app available and settled for iThoughts. I don’t know why it works well for me. I do them all with my finger – never with a key board. I still mostly use block capitals. The app has a doodle pad so I can add in handdrawn diagrams & text. It’s working out for me.

  4. Jon Miller

    March 19, 2015 - 10:29 pm

    I’m guessing that an FMRI or equivalent scan of the brains of students watching a teacher write or draw out a lesson would show mirror neurons firing.

  5. Bryon Brandt

    March 28, 2015 - 11:45 am

    Besides the value of writing by hand, a lesson I learned at Oakton Community College, many years ago, was the value of writing with the non-dominant hand, meaning the hand you don’t normally write with.

    I’m hesitant to write here what we all learned in that class, suggesting it is better to repeat the experiment yourself, as why should the hand you are holding your writing instrument in, have an impact on the expression of the thoughts recorded?

    But we all saw that it did have an impact. That the thoughts recorded when using the non-dominant hand, had more heart and feeling in them.

    So I still prefer writing by hand, when I want the best expression of my thoughts, and use my left hand when patient enough to get the best of my best.

    I’m forever grateful to Greg Baldauf for teaching us this lesson.

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