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Handwriting vs typing: pen still mightier than the keyboard for children’s memory

Students in Electronic Engineering laboratory

Published research started as an idea on developmental psychology module  

Children show a learning advantage when writing notes by hand rather than typing them, according to a new School of Psychology-led study, the first of its kind to explore the impact among children.

The study, titled Taking Class Notes by Hand Compared to Typing:Effects on Children’s Recall and Understanding, has been published in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education.

Caroline Edmonds, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of East London, and Dr Simon Horbury, a recent graduate of the MSc psychology at the University of East London, co-authored the study, which compared a 26-strong group of 10 and 11-year-old boys on their memory of facts and concepts after they either handwrote their lesson notes or typed them on a laptop computer. The children were tested both straight after the lesson and one week later.

Professor Edmonds said, “Our study is the first to look at the effect of different types of notetaking on children’s learning. In some countries, the teaching of handwriting in schools is being phased out in favour of typing.

“While learning to touch-type is an important skill, both for education and the workplace, our study supports the idea that the type of notes that are taken is important for learning.”

Note-taking in lessons or lectures is common and plays an important role in learning, however the increasing adoption of educational technology in school classrooms has resulted in greater use of electronic devices to take lesson notes.

The authors were particularly interested in their conceptual understanding. In simple terms, facts are information that can be memorised, while concepts are more abstract and require more understanding. Thus, concepts are particularly important for learning.

Factual recall and understanding of a history and a biology lesson were assessed using multiple choice questions (MCQ). MCQ tests were carried out both immediately after each lesson and one week later.

They found that when children were tested straight after the lesson, there was no difference in conceptual understanding when they handwrote or typed notes. In contrast, after a week delay, children who handwrote their notes had a stronger conceptual understanding than those who typed their notes. This advantage for handwriting over typing is generally in line with studies in adults.

Handwriting is slower than typing, so learners need to shorten the notes by processing the information and organising it – this is likely to aid learning, according to Professor Edmonds.  However, she added that it is not as simple as handwriting being good for learning and typing bad – some software allows electronic notetaking that is more flexible and allows drawings, mind maps and other features that are possible when handwriting.

Professor Edmonds hailed her co-author’s work, “Simon [Horbury] graduated from our MSc psychology with a distinction. He developed the idea for this study during an assessment on our developmental psychology module in which students had to prepare a poster in a group on a topical research debate. It was a really impressive piece of work and I encouraged him to continue these ideas into his dissertation work.”

“The School of Psychology is fortunate to have such outstanding academics and students working together on ‘firsts’ in research in positive and dynamic ways, with the potential to shape educational experiences and attract global interest,” said Professor Aneta Tunariu, Dean of the School of Psychology at the University of East London.