Writing lecture notes by hand ‘creates deeper understanding’

Researcher says academics should create moments ‘in which students are able to reflect on what they see and hear’

February 17, 2021
Signing a letter with a fountain pen
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Asking students to take lecture notes using pen and paper gives them a “deeper cognitive understanding” of what they are studying, a researcher has found.

For the study, published in Teaching in Higher Education, 101 master’s students on an informatics course at the University of Oslo were asked to write all lecture notes by hand, to use printed reading materials and to produce a final handwritten essay reflecting on what they had been asked to do.

Maja van der Velden, professor of digitalisation at Oslo, found that most students who took lecture notes by hand reported having better recall, being less distracted, feeling more creative and, overall, experiencing a deeper connection with their work.

Students said they were more likely to write down exactly what a lecturer said when using a computer, whereas handwriting forced them to summarise what they had heard in their own words, which is associated with better memory and understanding.

THE Campus resource: Training students to read and take notes in online classes

According to the analysis, many of the students reported having better recall of material they had written by hand.

They attributed this to being forced to concentrate harder and “being more present for learning” when writing by hand.

Several students felt that handwriting made them more creative or expressive, which can boost memory and understanding.

Students often got the sensation of better memory when they reread their lecture notes, and they perceived this as contributing to better exam results, the paper says.

The study also identifies some downsides to handwriting: for example, students complained about cramps and pain in their hand and said that editing and referencing were both much easier on a computer.

However, the initial hesitance of some students towards handwriting lecture notes had disappeared by the end of the course.

“The findings emphasise the importance of handwriting for deeper cognitive understanding,” the paper concludes.

Professor van der Velden said universities “should at least inform students about the advantages and disadvantages of the different learning and writing technologies”.

“Laptops are excellent for working with large texts; handwriting supports meaningful lecture notes,” she said.

“Lecturers may need to adapt how they lecture, finding a more meaningful balance between what they say and what they show on the lecture screen…Creating moments in which students are able to reflect on what they see and hear will be beneficial for all students, whatever they use to write lecture notes.”



Print headline: Taking notes by hand ‘boosts understanding’

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Reader's comments (4)

Finally, an article that sets down what many of us already know from experience. You also get to cover less material at a better pace using an approach that gets students to take notes. At some point, the information has to pass through the brain. I suppose I am lucky as in Engineering we can use numerous example problems to get students to solve things on paper. Unfortunately, the need for high student "satisfaction" scores makes many of us now too risk-averse to try anything radical.
Were there any measures of actual memory etc. rather than just student perception of the experience? Objective measures would enhance the subjective reports from the students
I do not know the specifics of the abovementioned research; however, this simply does not work like that for me. I have been doing almost all my note-taking and reading digitally, both academically and professionally, and find it much more effective and efficient than any physical, manuel effort. I acknowledge that optimal means of learning may vary across profiles; however, I think that pen-and-paper methods will become mostly a thing of the past in a few decades at the latest. (like the today-ancient means predating paper).
I have not yet read the full research paper, but my first reaction is that mandating handwritten work might put students with specific learning differences at a disadvantage - not least because many find reading their own writing difficult. I can see the benefits of encouraging students to summarise in their own words, but it's important to make our teaching methods as accessible to all students as we can.


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