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Handwriting vs typing in the learning environment

I'll tell you a little secret: I was awful at cheating at tests in school.

I used to be a pretty good student: I paid attention to class, I did my homework every time, and I scored quite decently in tests. But cool kids usually did the opposite. In a ridiculously naive attempt to become a cool kid myself, I decided one day that I shall cheat on the next test. Well, not the next, because that was Geography, and I liked Geography. So the one after that. History. 6th grade History.

I prepared my cheat sheets meticulously. Since the only printer I could get my hands on was under the direct supervision of my parents, and my trying to cheat on the test was supposed to be a secret, I couldn't rely on technology for help; I had to cheat the traditional way. So I spent a few hours writing by hand the answers to all the possible test subjects. I wrote them on pieces of paper that could be hidden by my (rather small) hand palm. I had to be precise with all that learning content.

The big day finally arrived. Sweaty palms, more heart beats per minute, thank God I didn't blush easily! When I received the test, all my questions about how was I going to actually use the cheat sheets completely disappeared. It turned out — I didn't need them. The subjects were easy, I knew the answers to all of them.

I've never been more disappointed in getting an A like I was when I received the result of that History test. I was a failure at cheating.

How handwriting affects learning

I had no idea at that time about the intricate brain activity that happens when you write something by hand. But I did realize that in all those hours when I was trying to cheat, I was, in fact, learning.

When writing by hand, three brain processes happen simultaneously:

  • Visual: you see the letters and words coming out of the movement of the tip of the pen on paper;
  • Motor: you coordinate your hand movements with your sight and actually form the letters to make words;
  • Cognitive: you remember and recognize the shape of the letters and understand the context.

Hand writing, therefore, improves brain development in the areas of thinking, language and working memory. It's like something magic happens between your brain, hand, and pen when putting your thoughts on paper. But it's not magic, it's science. Check out this New York Times piece describing a few relevant studies on how writing by hand affects the learning process.

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

Typing is the new writing now, isn't it?

Yes, it is. But it isn't. It's like Schrödinger's cat.

Typing does have some advantages over hand writing:

  • It is faster. When in a lecture, students can type almost all the words flying around the classroom.
  • It's easy to correct any mistake while typing. There's no need for cuts, arrows, or any scribbles.
  • It’s convenient. Everyone seems to have at least one device supporting typing. Just think about all the texting students do all the time.
  • It's shareable. Making copies of a typed document is a no-brainer; adding that document to a cloud-sharing platform is even easier. Putting words on a website means it's possible for everyone with an internet connection to see them.
  • It’s simply expected. It's such a basic requirement, that job descriptions don't even mention typing skills. Students are supposed to know how to type before they get out of school.

But typing doesn't have the same positive power over the learning process like handwriting does. The above mentioned studies come with supporting data: the activation of the visual, motor and cognitive brain processes is significantly weaker when typing compared to when handwriting.

Handwriting vs typing: Is it all a sum-zero game?

It doesn't have to be. Typing and handwriting are two different processes, involving different resources, and leading to different outcomes. Why should there be a battle between them in the first place?

Children should know how to write by hand — more than their names — as well as how to type. There's no reason to support one activity in the detriment of another. A lot of students take notes with pen and paper, and use their laptops / computers to turn in their assignments and take tests. It can be done. Both writing and typing are channeling the same core skills: the formation and communication of thought.

In the end, I leave you with this ode to the pen and penmanship:

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