Should You Take Notes By Hand and Read Paper Books?
By Art Carden
This started as a comment on my post about mandating the teaching of cursive in Tennessee, which got some great comments (as usual; thanks, EconLog readers), but it got long enough that I decided to make it its own post. The best came from Tom West:
I can pretty much guarantee that either no one asked “what will we *not* teach so that we can teach cursive writing”, or if that was asked, the question was roundly ignored.
When dealing with things like the value of cursive writing (or other abstracts), people do *not* like to face the fact that there are still trade-offs that will be made.
At best, it’s ignored. At worst, it’s considered immoral to be consciously and deliberately making those trade-offs.
Another great comment came from…Tom West again:
On another point, I’m sad to see hand-written class notes disappearing altogether in favor of typed, or even worse, teacher-provided, class notes. If my sons are any guide, the physical act of hand-writing the notes allows a significantly larger proportion of the information to actually “stick” in the student’s brain.
For some reason, typing notes on a computer ends up more like stenography, going from ear to fingers without hitting the brain in the middle. Does hand-writing require that much more engagement?
Typed or not, too many notes turn into stenography: it pains me to see students essentially try to transcribe what I’m saying or to simply reproduce whatever I put on the whiteboard while they’re otherwise completely checked out (yes, students, we can often tell when your mind is elsewhere). About a year ago, I started experimenting with Sketchnotes, and I think these combine the best of all worlds as pictures probably are worth 1000 words. I’m going to be playing around this semester with different writing and drawing apps for my iProducts, and I look forward to seeing what that does to the flow of the classes I’m teaching and to my retention when I’m at church or listening to a lecture or what have you.
I’ve seen coverage of the “if you write it by hand, it sticks better” research, and I’ve seen an argument that books read on paper stick better than books read on a Kindle. First, I’m not *that* surprised at these results, Second, from the coverage I’ve seen there’s no discussion of the magnitude of the effects. Third, the experiments being reported on are pretty small. Even if the results hold up, I’m not sure they recommend writing by hand and reading on paper.
The first objection is the economist’s: at what price? If ereaders and typing make reading and note-taking more convenient, might we be willing to trade depth for breadth?
There’s a second objection: retention is less important in a world where we carry supercomputers in our pockets and have virtually unlimited data storage. Being able to recall specific bits of information is less important today, and it will continue to get less important in the future. Why? With this virtually unlimited storage, we will see people substituting away from knowing a lot of facts and toward analytical and creative reasoning.
Just as my friend Steven Horwitz has cautioned against corner solution parenting, I think it’s important to avoid corner solution teaching and corner solution learning. Yes, it is important to know a lot of facts; however, unlimited storage and the ability to look up anything instantly from (almost) anywhere means that we can be a lot choosier about the facts we carry around in our heads and the facts we instead decide to outsource to the cloud.