The value of handwritten notes
Do you pick up any old notebook and pen when you need them, or do you have a thing for Moleskines or Montblancs?
Whether or not you are picky, know that tools for the hands are tools for the brain. Handwritten notes are a powerful tool for encrypting embodied cognition and, in turn, supporting the brain’s capacity for retrieval of information. And second, when you take notes by hand, your hands create a robust external memory storage: your notebook.
Taking notes by hand is a win-win and belongs in every student’s cognitive tool kit. Learning how to take notes by hand effectively and how to ingrain note-taking as a key learning and study tool can begin as early as grades 3 or 4, but it is never too late to begin.
We live in a digital age where daily functioning involves digital communication. Automaticity in keyboarding is an important skill, too, and the tools and applications for digital communication will continue to evolve and have their place. But keyboarding does not provide the tactile feedback to the brain that contact between pencil or pen and paper does – the key to creating the neurocircuitry in the hand-brain complex.
THE PROCESSING ADVANTAGE
While your laptop might seem faster and more efficient, there are good reasons for having a paper-bound notebook and pen – any kind you prefer – at the ready.
Researchers have found that note-taking associated with keyboarding involves taking notes verbatim in a way that does not involve processing information and so have called this “non-generative” note-taking. By contrast, taking notes by hand involves cognitive engagement in summarising, paraphrasing, organising, concept and vocabulary mapping – in short, manipulating and transforming information that leads to deeper understanding.
Note-taking becomes note-making: an active involvement in making sense and meaning for later reflection, study or sharing of notes to compare understanding with lab partners or classmates. This becomes a potent study strategy as one’s own processing can be further consolidated through talk.
There are templates and formats that teach more effective ways of taking handwritten notes. A popular one is the Cornell style developed by education professor Walter Pauk. You can also explore other ways that can be adapted for different study needs such as compare-contrast charts or webs.
Taking good notes depends on fluency of hand, which means legibility and speed combined. This is best achieved with a clean, uncluttered and connected script, meaning cursive writing, that young learners can begin to learn in grade 2. Fluency of hand comes from instruction and practice in the early years of school and sustained opportunities for authentic, purposeful literacy engagements, in turn, allocating working memory space to the cognitive demands of note-taking.
The move from grades 3 to 4 is a big leap for young learners. Content curriculum in science, social studies, English language arts, and mathematics makes accelerated demands on children to shift into academic modes of literacy.
Each year of educational advancement makes increasing demands in reading and writing, understanding, and making sense of vast amounts of information in multimodal formats.
SKETCHING AND DRAWING BELONG, TOO
Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “… the more minutely you describe, the more you will confuse the mind of the reader and the more you will remove him from knowledge of the thing described. Therefore it is necessary to make a drawing … as well as to describe … .”
The artist’s notebooks reveal a creative, inquiring, inventive mind, and man of science and art unparalleled centuries ahead of his time. Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart, pioneers in cognitive neuroscience research, noted three levels of information processing. Their theory lays bare the neuroscience behind da Vinci’s insights centuries ago. When people visually represent knowledge, they can deepen their comprehension of concepts such as cycles and relationships. As a result, some cognitive researchers advocate teaching different ways of representing knowledge from an early age.
Florence Nightingale is remembered for her contributions in reforming medicine through her detailed, meticulous observations, documentation, note-taking, and writing. She is credited with creating the pie chart to represent this information.
I assign my own students, preparing to become teachers, the task of sketching the layout of the class where they are working in a field placement. They also take observational handwritten notes recorded in a Cornell template. This assignment is about interpreting what is going on in the classroom. This process of documenting provides a good scaffold for later review or reflection and theorising the work of classroom teachers.
If writing is a requirement of your profession whether in journalism, teaching, architecture, engineering, fashion, and more, you already know the benefits and importance of note-taking and sketching.
ANALOGUE, DIGITAL, AND LEGACY FORMATS
When deep understanding and remembering, making personal connection, and sparking creative thought are important, handwritten notes matter and endure over time.
Interestingly, the art of keeping a paper diary, journal, or planner has generated scores of online communities. Many find pleasure in keeping calendars, daily organisers, cards and notes and lists of all kinds, and writing family stories for the next generation all by hand – and then sharing them digitally.
For serious students, note-taking is an indispensable cognitive tool and study technique. Creating neurocircuitry for memory and meaning through the hand-brain complex is the key to understanding the value of handwritten notes. Think twice before relying solely on your laptop this fall!
- Hetty Roessingh is a professor of education at the University of Calgary. This article originally appeared on The Conversation and is republished under a Creative Commons licence.