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Keyboard or Pen: What is best for your classroom?

Digital learning is fast changing the educational scenario. How are you responding to the change?

Imagine your school is working on a new policy to decide whether students should be allowed to take notes on a laptop. You can contribute with ideas to support or challenge this proposition.

Do you think you are equipped to make this choice? Do any arguments come to your mind?

Nowadays, many researchers are interested in finding the best strategies for learning and teaching. Their study's scope varies from neurological to psychological basis of learning.

Let's look at some of their findings and see what facts can we discover some facts about handwriting and note-taking by typing. 

EEG Study of Human Brain while Typing, Writing, and Drawing

Scientists use brain imaging to study the brain's role in reading and writing. By studying the brain regions activated during an activity, scientists determine how useful each activity is for learning.

Brain activations during handwriting, in a group of young healthy right-handed volunteers

Figure 1: Brain activations during handwriting in a group of young and healthy right-handed volunteers  

Eva Ose Askvik, F. R. (Ruud) van der Weel, and Audrey L. H. van der Meer from the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology conducted this study. They used a high-density electroencephalogram (HD EEG) in 12 young-adults and 12-year-old children to study brain electrical activity as they were writing in cursive by hand, typewriting, or drawing visually presented words that were varying in difficulty. 

The analysis of amplitude change over time for the EEG data for young adults revealed synchronized activity in the theta region in the parietal and central regions of the brain. Existing research correlates this kind of brain activity with memory formation and encoding new information. In other words, this indicates an optimal condition for learning.

A similar kind of activation in parietal areas was found when participants were asked to draw by hand. 

On the other hand, when typewriting on a keyboard, desynchronized activity in the theta range in the parietal and central brain regions was recorded. This pattern contrasts with drawing and handwriting, and its relation to learning remains unclear. 

Figure 2: Representation of the human brain with parietal lobe highlighted

Based on the results, the researchers concluded that drawing and handwriting produce the benefits of sensory-motor integration due to the large involvement of senses as well as fine and precise control of hand movements. The corresponding brain activity in the parietal and central areas of the brain is crucial to facilitating and optimizing learning. 

Previous research establishes cursive handwriting and typewriting as two distinct ways of writing from the sensorimotor point of view. (Longcamp et al., 2005, 2006; Alonso, 2015) These activities involve distinct processes in the brain.

Cursive writing involves fine coordination of hand movement to produce the shape of each letter, whereas typewriting involves much less kinesthetic information. According to Van der Meer and Van der Weel, handwriting and drawing are complex tasks requiring various skills.

Influence of Writing Practice on Letter Recognition

In a study conducted at Aix-Marseille University on 76 children between the age of three to five years, researchers Marieke Longchamp and Jean-Luc Velay found that the children who learned to write letters using hands were better at identifying them than those who learned letters by typing on a keyboard. 

To conduct this study, researchers trained two groups of 38 children to copy letters of the alphabet either by hand or by typing them. 12 Uppercase letters were chosen for the experiment. The intention was to teach the 12 alphabets to children by providing typewriting and handwriting training.

For the typewriting training, 4 words composed of the 12 chosen letters were shown on the upper left side of the computer screen with 3 cm tall characters. The children were asked to recognize the characters on the screen, find them on the keyboard and type them. After successfully identifying all letters in a word, the next word was displayed on the screen.

The same process was repeated for the handwriting training, except the word was presented on the upper left side of a piece of paper with 3 cm tall characters. The children were asked to copy the letters of the word underneath the displayed word using a felt-tip pen. 

After three weeks of training, they ran two recognition tests. The first test was conducted immediately at the end of the learning session and the second one a week later. 

The children were seated in front of a computer screen for the recognition tests. Four character-like patterns were presented on the screen, of which only one character was taught in the experiment (the other three were distractors). The children were asked to identify the letter they learned during the experiment and point to it using the index finger. 


Figure 3: Two examples of visual configuration displayed on the computer screen during the letter recognition test 

The experimenters recorded the responses on the keyboard of the computer. The position of the character and the distractors were changed throughout the experiment. The children in each group were further categorized into three groups based on age Younger, Middle, and Older.  

Figure 4: Correct responses by the participants in the pre-test and two letter recognition tests, T1 and T2. Solid line: handwriting group. Dashed line: typing group. 

The results show that the difference in recognizing letters is not significant for the two ways of learning unless the children are a bit older. In other words, learning characters by handwriting practice does help children memorize the form of letters better than typing, provided they are not too young. 

Comparison of Performance Between longhand and Laptop Note Taking

Researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer conducted three experiments as part of a study. They invited 327 students from Princeton University and the University of California for this. 

The researchers were interested in learning about the impact of note-taking behavior. Their conclusions suggest that when laptops are used for note-taking, they create shallow processing of what is heard during the class. The students who took notes this way performed worse in response to conceptual questions than those who took longhand notes. 

Further, the laptop note takers tend to note things verbatim rather than thinking about the information and putting it in their words. This tendency is detrimental to learning.

The experts put note-taking into two categories: generative, which involves summarizing and paraphrasing, and non-generative, which implies verbatim copying of what is heard or seen. 

Existing research relates verbatim note-taking with shallow cognitive processing. On the other hand, when information is processed during note-taking, as in the longhand approach, there are greater encoding benefits such as learning and retention. Verbatim note-taking has been experimentally verified by (Bretzing & Kulhavy, 1979; Igo, Bruning, & McCrudden, 2005) as an indicator of poor performance, particularly in the area of conceptual understanding. 

Laptop use facilitates verbatim transcription of class lectures as most users can type faster than they can write. Thus typing gives a storage benefit of taking down more notes but excludes the encoding benefit when students think about what is heard before noting it down. 

The material used for all three experiments was five TED Talks in length (slightly over 15 min), and the topics covered were chosen to be interesting but not common knowledge.

In the first study,  the participants who took longhand notes wrote significantly fewer words  (M = 173.4, SD = 70.7) than those who typed (M = 309.6, SD = 116.5). At the same time, the verbatim overlap for laptop users was also higher than the longhand note-takers. Figure 5 compares the mean of number of words taken down and verbatim overlap for the two groups of students. 

Figure 5

This study demonstrated that laptop users are likelier to take longer and transcription-type notes. A greater verbatim overlap with the lecture content was also noted. Though it would appear that a greater quantity of notes or exact note-taking is beneficial, mindless transcription does more harm, especially when there is no opportunity to review.

The second study intended to replicate the process of 1st study with an additional intervention to half of the students taking notes with laptops. The researchers wanted to see if the intervention could reduce the negative effects of this style of note-taking. This experiment involved 151 participants. 

The intervention group was warned against the tendency to mindlessly transcribe lecture content. They were requested to take notes "in their own words and not write down word-for-word" what the speaker had to say. 

The second experiment showed that even with intervention, the group that took notes with a laptop had noted down considerably more words than those that took longhand notes. Further, the performance of the later group was much higher on conceptual questions than either of the groups that took notes with laptops. 

The mean and z-score for the three groups are presented in Table 1

 As part of the third study involving 109 students, the participants who were shown the lecture content was asked to return after one week for a test. Half students from both typing and longhand groups were asked to go through their notes for 10 minutes before the test, and the other half from both groups were presented with the test immediately. 

Participants who took longhand notes and were able to study them performed significantly better (z-score M = 0.19) than participants in any of the other conditions (z-score Ms = −0.10, −0.02, −0.08), t(105) = 3.11, p = .002, d = 0.64 (see Fig. 5).

When the participants were given a chance to review their notes, longhand notes produced the best results. The results show that despite the comparatively lesser quantity of notes taken with the longhand technique, it presented a superior encoding function. Also, it is possible that due to enhanced encoding features, longhand notes served as a better reminder of lecture information and with better effectiveness than reviewing laptop notes.

Table 2 summarizes the performance of the four conditions given to participants in study 3 

The researchers concluded that laptop note-taking is associated with verbatim transcription style note-taking behavior. Even verbal intervention did not prevent students from repeatedly transcribing the lecture content. 

The first impression of the transcription style is the storage benefit it offers. However, the third experiment of this study showed that students who took notes on a laptop performed poorly in both conditions, i.e., when they were given a chance to go through the notes and not before the test. 

Regarding conceptual understanding, the longhand note takers outperformed those who took notes on laptops across all three experiments. 

The use of laptops for easier note-taking is evident; however, the tendency to not apply thought and take down course content as it is something educators should be cautious of. However, the use of devices to take down notes can be useful only if students do not take notes indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content. Observations and experiments suggest that students tend to incline on the transcribing side more with devices like laptops than when taking notes in longhand form. 

Though technology allows for faster and more efficient ways of doing certain activities, cognitive processes like learning require involving a certain effort. The ability to draw inferences, see new connections, and apply learning in new contexts are fundamental brain processes that build knowledge structures in our brain. 

When we encourage writing down notes, we help young learners appreciate the need for mental effort in learning. They learn much more when they rely on their thought process to interpret what they hear and see in the classroom.

What should I tell my students?: To use a Pen or Keyboard

A good synthesis of both styles could be for the students to take notes with a laptop in the classroom. They can, however, later make their longhand notes based on typed notes. This practice could help them revise and relearn what they heard in the classroom.

For example, Students can organize the typed notes as answers to different questions. Then write down the answer to these questions in their own words in a notebook. This way, students will have much concise notes that will also be easy to remember.


1. The Importance of Cursive Handwriting Over Typewriting for Learning in the Classroom: A High-Density EEG Study of 12-Year-Old Children and Young Adults. Ose Askvik Eva, van der Weel F. R. (Ruud), van der Meer Audrey L. H. (2020)

2. Neuroanatomy of Handwriting and Related Reading and Writing Skills in Adults and Children with and without Learning Disabilities: French-American Connections. Longcamp, Marieke & Velay, jean-luc & Berninger, Virginia Wise & Richards, Todd. (2016)

3. Influence of Writing Practice on Letter Recognition in Preschool Children: A Comparison between Handwriting and Typing. Longcamp, Marieke & Zerbato-Poudou, Marie-Thérèse & Velay, jean-luc. (2005). 

4. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard. Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014)


Manish Dubey

Manish is a Business Associate at Open Door. He believes in the transformative power of education and thinks that every teacher can be a role model for children.

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