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Do Students Learn Better by Typing on a Keyboard or Writing with a Pen?

When it comes to learning and remembering course material, the pen is mightier than the keyboard. Writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters. It requires more mental energy and engages more areas of the brain than pressing keys on a computer keyboard.  The sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information.

Brain imaging studies demonstrate that, relative to typing, handwriting produces increased activity in Broca’s area and the bilateral inferior parietal lobules, areas involved in the ‘execution, imagery, and observation of actions.’

Also, writing stimulates cells at the base of the brain, the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS filters incoming information and attaches more importance to some information than to other information. The information that we focus on is rated higher in importance. Apparently, the act of writing activates the RAS and the RAS tells the cerebral cortex to pay attention to the written information and notice details. 

Students’ compositions are better when they are handwritten than when they are typed. For example, 2nd, 4th, and 6th grade school children with limited proficiency in both handwriting and typing completed classroom assignments both ways. The handwritten assignments were longer, included more complete sentences and a greater number of ideas, and were completed in less time than the typed assignments.

Does this mean that medical students should compose papers by hand instead of word processing them? Does it mean students should hand write instead of type notes during lectures? No. The advantages of word processing on a keyboard must be weighed against the advantages of writing with a pen or pencil. First, since most medical students can type faster than they can write, students who type may take more complete notes than those who write by hand.  Second, word processing software makes revisions of papers relatively easy. Third, typed papers are usually neater and easier for others to read than handwritten papers. Fourth, a high percentage of modern day communication in higher education is electronic communication and must be typed, not handwritten.

While handwriting is not practical for many of the activities in a medical student’s life, it can be employed for some of the activities. Students can reap the benefits of handwriting when they use handwriting during goal setting, the brainstorming phase of composition writing, and the retrieval phase of studying.  The third activity, retrieval, should occur several times during a long study session, about once each hour. After reading a book chapter or reviewing lecture notes, a student should attempt to recall the contents of the chapter or notes. Recall encompasses talking out loud, demonstrating, teaching, visualizing, solving problems, writing chemical equations, drawing, or jotting down key words and phrases.  Learning is enhanced when students attempt to retrieve/recreate the course material using multiple modalities – kinesthetic, tactile, visual, olfactory, and auditory.    

Patricia Ann Wade, Ph.D.
Learning Specialist
317 274-2042
patwade@iu.edu