/ 9 April 2021

Why handwriting is still important in the age of tech

Don’t knock longhand: Using pen and paper to make notes instead of a digital device may help your brain retain the information better, two studies suggest. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

The world is becoming digital, for our convenience, but researchers have found that longhand note-taking triggers more brain activity than using your digital device keyboard or stylus pen.

Using pen and paper allows the brain to summarise information in a way that is understandable to an individual, while using a keyboard tempts the brain to record information as received, the University of Tokyo found in a recent study.

The study was conducted using three groups of 48 students who had to use a paper notebook, a paper-sized tablet with a stylus pen and a phone, respectively. They each had to read dialogues and write down appointments contained in them; an hour later, students had to participate in a memory retrieval process where they answered questions about the appointments.

Although groups using mobile devices wrote and typed faster than the pen-and-paper group, the researchers found that writing on paper triggered more brain activation as the group managed to respond to questions more quickly and confidently than their tech­nology-using counterparts.

Another study in conjunction with the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where the writing of 12-year-olds was studied, found that children learn effectively and remember better when writing by hand because pressing a pen on paper and seeing the words you write activates more senses.

The study suggested children continue to get handwriting training even as the world was adapting to mobile devices for the fourth industrial revolution transition.

“Cursive writing has been considered an essential precursor for further academic success, and the skill is typically acquired during childhood in societies with a strong literacy tradition,” reads the research.

The study reports that children need to learn the shape of letters and coordinate their hand movements when writing certain words for better brain activation in remembering their note-taking. In classrooms where computers were used, students had lower marks and were typically distracted by multitasking.

The cofounder of NeuRL, a neuro­science lab at the University of Witwatersrand, Sahba Besharati, said note-taking was used to help the brain later recall information better — the level of focus affected brain activation when trying to remember.

Besharati said the pandemic had intensified questions about learning in person versus online. She said science still needed to explain how evolving learning environments influence memory processes.

“In general, experimental research has shown that taking notes by hand leads to better memory recall, of verbal information at least, compared to computer-based methods,” she said. 

“But this, of course, depends on many factors, such as visual or audio distractions. In some cases, computer-based and handwriting-based note-taking yield similar results.”

Besharati believes it is unwise to abandon paper for young children who are still learning how to write, but believes there is no right or wrong way of note-taking. It depends on the environment and on individual preference.

However, digital devices provided constant opportunities for distraction from applications running in the background or notifications, which can be ignored by turning off data or wi-fi use.