Why Students Need to Write More, Type Less
Handwriting is falling by the wayside. Students benefit when they write more.
I am pro-technology. I am a Google Certified Educator. I have written about utilizing technology meaningfully and effectively in the classroom.
I believe in teaching students how to navigate technology instead of choosing to believe it does not exist.
However, in schools that rely heavily on devices, there is an unsettling trend in student learning.
Technology has made instruction more convenient. But at what cost to student learning?
In many schools, students come prepared to learn with their devices in tow.
I am able to instruct students to research topics in class using their computers instead of sending them to the (gasp!) library. I am able to ask students to type essays and share documents quickly through Google Classroom and Turnitin.
Recently, my students were studying science vocabulary words in class to prepare for a quiz. Back in the olden days when I went to school, I would have copied the words down by hand and re-written the definition in my own words.
My students took a picture with their phone. To study later. From a picture on their phone.
And when I suggested they actually (gasp!) use their hands to write down the definitions, they balked. What do you mean write it down? On paper? I don’t have any paper. Or a pen. Cue exasperated sigh.
And this doesn’t just happen in science or English classes where information is relatively easy to deliver via online documents. In math class, my students do not write down formulas or the steps in a problem, but use their calculators to find the answers to complex equations.
I have instituted a policy, much to their chagrin, that they must fully write out each step of the formula, every single time. Their test scores and understanding have improved across the board.
Students regularly take pictures of the slides in presentations or the notes on the board. They download notes from a website to read over it later. They rely on text that is given to them instead of processed by them.
They are doing the exact opposite of what it takes to retain and process information.
Research has proven that writing notes by hand creates more neural pathways in the brain. Mental stimulation in the brain occurs when we write, and brain imaging suggests a connection between idea generation and handwriting.
According to Associate Professor, Anne Mangen, “Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.”
When students take notes from the board by hand, they are processing the information as they read. Through this processing, they are internalizing more information than if they were to just snap a picture to look at later.
Dr. Horowitz explains, “handwriting is a multisensory activity. As you form each letter, your hand shares information with language processing areas in your brain. As your eyes track what you’re writing, you engage these areas.”
As most of us know, writing something down creates a physical engagement with the information we are learning. Typing does not create the same engagement. Typing might allow us to copy down a larger quantity of information, but this is detrimental to students who need to learn to be selective in processing the information they receive.
Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer from Princeton University led experiments that resulted in the same findings: “Laptop notetakers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”
They concluded that the process of reflection in handwriting leads to better memory recall.
When students stop writing, they stop processing and become passive receivers of information. When they become passive receivers of information, they become passive thinkers as well.
What We Can Do Instead
Through my own experiences in the classroom, I am convinced that my students need to spend more time with their laptops closed.
Most of my students have never taken notes by hand, and when they read a paragraph or essay are unable to identify what they should write down to remember.
Students need to spend more time learning to take notes and processing information as it is delivered. Instead of sharing presentations and typed notes with my class, I plan to teach my students how to use Cornell notes as a note-taking strategy. The use of outlines, bullet journals, and graphic organizers are all good alternatives to typing.
In addition, I plan to ask students to write paragraphs and short answers by hand utilizing editing techniques that can be used without a computer. The over-reliance on Grammerly is hindering my students from identifying the revision that is necessary in their writing.
I also advocate for the use of iPads and a stylus to write notes directly into a device (in consideration of the trees). With this method, students can write notes into a file that they can later access. They still benefit from physically selecting information to write in their notes.
It takes explicit instruction to teach students how to process information in a way that helps them learn. Through practice, students can become more adept at accessing the pathways in their brain to improve working memory and recall.
Write This Down (By Hand)
The bottom line is that students need to spend more time writing by hand. I can certainly understand their reluctance to unplug. It is much easier to be given information to learn instead of selecting the information to be learned.
I never thought I would be advocating for less technology in the classroom. As a borderline millennial, I began using computers regularly in college. I am on a laptop for a large portion of my day.
However, the research is in, and we are losing learning opportunities by spoon feeding content to our students.
Eventually students will become accustomed to receiving information without processing it.
And that is not good for our future. We as educators can take steps to ensure our students are critical thinkers capable of processing information effectively.
Step away from the laptop. Take some notes. Bring back handwriting.
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