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Writing lecture notes by hand ‘creates deeper understanding’

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 22 Feb 2021

Signing a letter with a fountain pen
Source: iStock

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.”