Should You Take Notes by Writing or Typing?

When I was in college (which was not too long ago), it seemed like every student, including me, had a laptop in front of them in lecture, carefully typing down everything word coming out of the professor’s mouth.  But it left me wondering, although typing is invariably faster than writing with a pen, is it really the most effective form of notetaking?  Turns out, it is not.  While typing will compile a much bigger volume of notes, it is the act of writing your notes with a pen that commits to memory.


Why Writing Your Notes is Better than Typing

Writing by hand maybe a lost art, but it is still an invaluable skill.  But the use of our dexterity to manipulate tools have played an important role in our evolution, learning, and cognitive development.

Scientifically speaknig, writing is important because it stimulates a parts of the brain that typing simply doesn’t.  Writing longhand stimulates the Reticular Activating System (RAS), Broca’s area, and the bilateral inferior parietal lobules.  The RAS acts as a filter for everything your brain needs to process information, giving more attention to the stuff you are currently focused on.  In addition, writing with a pen stimulates the Broca’s area and the bilateral inferior parietal lobules, areas involved in controlling speech, execution, imagery, and observation.

As for why writing stimulates the mind much more; the act of physically writing something down grab’s the brain’s attention much more than the monotonous act of typing, wherein you are essentially tapping keys. When writing with a pen or pencil, you need much more attentional focus in order to write—making sure to cross your Ts and dot your Is.  The act of this focused attention allows for neurons in the brain to fire in areas of the brain dedicated to the task of learning.  In addition, writing has been shown to train the brain and increase your cognitive abilities much better than typing. Using brain imaging, researchers found that the practice of writing by hand helps with improving idea composition and expression, and also aid in fine motor-skill development.

The average writing speed of a student is around 0.3 to 0.4 words per second. But the average lecturer speaks at a rate of around 2 to 3 words per second. Because of the limitations of note-taking by hand, the complexity of cognitive operations and the knoweldge invovled in it requires you to actively focus and control what you are doing. This is a contrary to typing, in which you are able to type almost as fast as the lecturer is speaking, thus passively listening and taking notes.

When Writing Beats Typing

Writing with a pen is not always better than typing.  You obviously would not want to write an essay or dissertation with a pen and paper.  But with the pen and paper becoming increasingly rare, the scientific studies show that there is still merit to using the pen.  If you have not used  a pen to take lecture notes, try it—it might change the way you take in information and learn.  If you are currently taking notes with a pen, keep doing it as it is aiding you in the learning process.  Of course writing doesn’t have to be by an ink pen or a #2 pencil—it can also be electronic. Advances in technology allows us to write electronically by developing styluses and smartpens.

Learning is a process and to do so effectively most often requires multiple modalities, such as kinesthetic, tactile, visual, smell, and auditory.  Learning also requires the skill of recall and review.  Learning how to learn and study effectively may sometimes require years of experimentation and practice.  So just because you wrote something down with a pen does not mean you will magically learn the material.  Learning something still requires active effort.  But writing down your notes with a pen just makes the learning process a bit more efficient.

Items Mentioned in this Article

Livescribe Smartpen: Allows you to write on physical paper, record audio, and seamlessly transfer your notes to a computer.

About the author

EE Edit@rs