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Kevin Dalby Gives 5 Reasons Why Handwritten Notes Are Better

Originally published on

Handwriting is often praised as an effective note-taking strategy. In this article, UT Austin Professor Dr. Kevin Dalby highlights some of the reasons learners of all ages should include handwriting in the learning process. It may not be for everyone, but understanding the benefits of pen and paper can help you encode information better.

A report titled The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, from Princeton and UCLA, respectively, demonstrates that students who handwrite their notes increase short-term and long-term memory retention. They found that students who took notes using computers underperformed on conceptual questions compared to students who took notes longhand. Their research shows that while typing is generally much faster, laptop note-takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim hinders retention.

The Mueller and Oppenheimer Study, along with other examinations of this topic, illustrate that there are at least five excellent reasons to consider handwritten notes. Handwriting your notes helps to:

  • Promote better information retention
  • Have fewer distractions
  • Fosters creative learning
  • Gives you less eye strain
  • Improves handwriting skills

A person with good typing skills can almost mindlessly record what they hear. Some can even carry on a conversation with someone while typing. The ability to type without focusing on what they’re doing can impede the learning process. Fast typers will benefit from a disciplined approach to note-taking where they summarize and paraphrase rather than type verbatim. 

A laptop computer brings with it a host of other potential distractions that pen and paper do not. Many post-secondary professors still do not allow students to use computers for note-taking. They believe the potential for distraction is too great.

The unstructured nature of pen and paper provides an additional benefit. Creating non-text notes, such as graphs, illustrations, and sketches, is an impressionable action and can improve recall. For visual learners, drawing a picture can help them remember because creating a sketch is a cognitive activity as well as a skill. Learning is reinforced as they interpret their sketch during a review of their notes.

Parents and teachers alike are concerned about the amount of screen time some students experience. Computer and device screens cause eye strain, and this problem extends beyond students. Working professionals that spend many hours each day on a computer and then relax in front of another device can often suffer from headaches caused by eye strain. 

Taking notes longhand, however, is not for everyone. For some learners, the speed of typing and the ability to insert additional notes or reformat their note pages helps them stay organized and avoid the potential frustration of handwriting notes. Also, students of any age with poor handwriting skills may find it challenging to read their notes for review. 

For students and business professionals — anyone really — the best note-taking strategy may be found in a hybrid model. When capturing information that should be remembered and internalized, handwriting notes may work best. When documenting information, they don’t need to remember but want to save it for future reference; typing will be faster, easier, and more readable. 

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby, UT Austin professor of chemical biology and medicinal chemistry, is currently working on cancer drug discovery. At the College of Pharmacy at The University of Texas, he examines the mechanisms of nature and cancer to develop new treatments and teach and motivate students to conduct research. Dalby is optimistic about the future of cancer treatments.