From ChromeBooks to digital whiteboards, technology rules the modern classroom. As a result, it’s becoming more common for students to use phones, tablets and computers to take notes, complete projects and write tests. Technology makes these tasks faster, but does efficiency come at the expense of learning?
Writing by hand may seem old school, but it certainly has its merits for both memory and literacy. Here’s why notetaking and handwriting are still relevant in the digital age — and how to teach them to a digital-first generation.
Why Do Handwriting and Note-Taking Matter?
Digital tools improve our ability to record and share information, but they’re not able to replace handwriting entirely. According to Louise Spear-Swerling, professor emerita, Southern Connecticut State University, handwriting skills help preserve mental resources for other learning tasks in the classroom. “Labored handwriting creates a drain on mental resources needed for higher-level aspects of writing, such as attention to content, elaboration of details, and organization of ideas,” she explains.
Students who can’t write well may become frustrated or annoyed at the task. This impedes their focus, inhibiting their ability to understand and remember what it is they’re recording.
Learning handwriting at a young age improves reading skills too, according to educational consultant J. Richard Gentry, Ph.D. He points to a report in Early Childhood Education Journal, which shows the literacy benefits of learning handwriting before learning keyboarding.
“Learning handwriting in preschool is better than learning letters on the computer because research shows that handwriting in print—not keyboarding—leads to adult-like neural processing in the visual system of the preschool child’s developing reading brain,” he writes.
Having legible handwriting can also impact evaluations of a student’s texts, explains Margaret Brown at Today’s Modern Educator. It ties into literacy and plays a role in how quickly students learn to read too. According to the Enrichment Therapy and Learning Center, handwriting makes it easier to learn letters and shapes, which is linked to reading comprehension. Increased brain activity, fine motor-skill development and improved idea composition and expression are all noted benefits of having good handwriting.
Writing Notes for Memory Retention
Taking notes by hand is essential for retaining information, says former teacher and education writer Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy. “Rather than passively taking information in, the act of encoding the information into words or pictures forms new pathways in the brain, which stores it more firmly in long-term memory.”
Moreover, storing this information in a new physical place provides students with an opportunity to revisit it. Returning to the information for review or test preparation helps reinforce what was learned the first time.
Many educators understand that taking notes boost students’ memory of the lesson, regardless of the notetaking method they use. However, writing notes by hand may be much more beneficial than using a digital device.
This was demonstrated in a study at the United States Military Academy. Classrooms with unrestricted computer access were compared with those that had no computer access. The results showed that final exam scores were lower in the classrooms with computers. This suggests that relying too heavily on computers as a learning tool may actually inhibit a student’s ability to learn effectively.
The findings were echoed in another study headed by Daniel M. Oppenheimer, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. This study showed that digital note-taking could be less effective because students tend to write as much as they can in verbatim, rather than reciting the lecture in their own words. “The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.”
Writing notes by hand certainly takes longer. But, the fact that they take longer is exactly the reason why they’re better for memory retention.
How to Teach Handwriting
Just because today’s generation is accustomed to communicating with technology doesn’t mean they can’t learn to write by hand. Teaching students how to write effectively starts with proper pencil grasp, says reading specialist Brooke MacKenzie.
“The correct grasps—in which the index finger and thumb hold the pencil against the middle finger—result in comfortable and efficient handwriting, while incorrect grasps can cause poor letter formation and fatigue.”
Using molded pencil grips can help students learn proper grasp and understand the feeling of holding a writing instrument. The pinch and flip trick is another idea. With this technique, the student places the pencil on the desk with the tip facing him or her. Then, they pinch the pencil with their thumb and index finger and flip it into place.
Formation is the next step that’s important to teach because it ensures legibility. Formation includes both form and slant, according to Education World. While this will differ depending on whether cursive or print is being taught, it’s important in both cases that students know where and how to end letters. Posture matters, too: Students should have both feet flat on the floor. The paper should be positioned at a 45 degree angle towards the writing side of the body.
After proper form has been mastered, students need to learn an appropriate writing size. Using lined handwriting paper guides students to develop consistency in lettering size, says Kathryn Stout at Design a Study.
Rough, dark-ruled paper adds a multisensory element to lessons on handwriting. Former teacher Amanda Morin says that since writing requires strong fine motor and visual-motor skills, it can be hard for students to grasp the first time. Bumpy lines (made by tracing the bold lines with glue) creates a hard texture that the student’s pencil physically touches at the top and bottom of each letter.
When working with students who have special needs, certain tools and technologies may in fact be necessary. Special needs students may struggle with physical, neurological, perceptual, confidence or coordination challenges, all of which can impede the understanding of lettering, says occupational therapist Nancy LaFayette at School Health. She notes that while mobile devices are a commonly used tool for helping children with special needs, they shouldn’t replace writing all together.
“Technology should not be a replacement for handwriting, but should be used as a tool to keep children learning and engaged,” she writes.
How to Teach Note-Taking
There are a number of note-taking sub-skills that help children learn to record important information effectively. According to educator Joan Sedita at Keys to Literacy, these include paraphrasing, being concise, abbreviations, listening skills and using visual cues such as arrows and underlines.
It’s also important to teach students that notes don’t have to be perfect, says education consultant Meredith Cicerchia. Help them understand that notes aren’t personal; they’re meant to help the recorder retain the information. Also emphasize the importance of including diagrams, drawings and bullet points where appropriate. For example, bullet points are a better option than writing a full paragraph of text. It’s also important that teachers check student notes before they’re used to study for a test to ensure that the information is accurate.
Having students compare notes helps them see how others to record information and whether the most important points were contained in their notes. Elementary school teacher Amy Konen explains that she first has students read a text and take notes. Then students trade notes with other members of their group, asking questions to clarify any information.
She engages students in a discussion about what information was included, why it was included and if anything important was missing. Students then have the opportunity to adjust their notes according to the talk. Lastly, students make a plan for which new methods they’ll try at the next note-taking lesson.
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