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Writing and Memory Retention

Writing and Memory Retention

With so much technology at your students' fingertips, they may have begun to rely on typing up their class notes instead of writing them by hand. While note-taking is a crucial skill to develop, regardless of the method, some research suggests handwriting notes offers a wealth of benefits that typing notes does not. 

Let's take a further look at those advantages, why taking notes helps retain information and how students can incorporate handwriting into their day-to-day activities. 

Benefits of Handwriting

Even in an increasingly digital world, there are various benefits of handwriting inside and outside the classroom. Let's explore how handwriting can help students learn their letters, increase students' brain activity and help students with disabilities learn. 

Learning Letters

For young children, learning their letters is crucial in writing and reading. When handwriting, they get the chance to hone their fine motor skills while tracing the shapes of letters. When students understand their letters, they can communicate their unique ideas better, which ultimately leads to a more effective educational experience. Though technology is user-friendly and can be excellent for ease of application, what could students miss out on if they didn't practice handwriting?

Increased Brain Activity

Because handwriting involves motor function and visual perception, it's critical in teaching students how to write. Studies based on brain scans have shown that more brain regions light up during handwriting instead of typing, indicating they are active and functioning. For example,  one recent study  of children and young adults demonstrated that handwriting and drawing engage the brain much more than typing on a keyboard. 

Based on an EEG analysis, the researchers found writing by hand activated more regions of the brain, creating the optimal conditions for learning. Because of the cognitive benefits of writing, some experts have even suggested that it's  not a good idea to teach children how to type  until they've fully developed their handwriting abilities. 

Learning With Disabilities 

does writing notes help you remember

Some argue computers are ideal assistive tools for helping children with learning disabilities retain information more effectively. These students may struggle to master the physical and mental skills necessary for learning to write and express ideas. However, children with learning differences who learn to write by hand can develop their reading abilities sooner, memorize what they have learned and generate ideas more effectively. 

Though many teachers no longer emphasize penmanship, some students with disabilities may prefer writing by hand to typing on a keyboard, unless their disabilities physically prevent them from holding a pen or pencil. 

Does Writing Help Memory?

Some students claim that they are more productive note-takers when they type because this method allows them to take notes faster. At   Washington University, psychology professors   even found that those who take notes via their computer instead of writing them out by hand have better recall immediately afterward. 

However, they found this advantage fades away after 24 hours. After taking a test covering the material, students who typed their notes performed worse. Therefore, if students want to cement details from lessons and lectures into their long-term memory, it is effective to take notes by hand as a memory aid, or at least write them out longhand after they've typed them up. 

This study found participants who took notes by hand did better because they were actively synthesizing and summarizing valuable takeaways, while those who typed were taking notes verbatim from the lecture. In other words, those who took notes by hand had to not only process the material, but also had to organize it on the fly. Meanwhile, students who typed their notes were only retaining information superficially.

Ultimately, writing things down helps you remember more by forcing people to slow down and be more intentional, so students who want to retain relevant information should take class notes by hand. The practice will pay off in better grades, too.  

How Students Can Incorporate Handwriting in Their Day-to-Day Lives

Writing in a planner is a fantastic way for students to incorporate handwriting into their daily lives. Though they will likely be writing schedule details down in their planners for the most part, they will also get into the habit of handwriting and start associating note-taking with organization and helpfulness. When completing homework assignments like writing essays and papers, starting with a handwritten list of ideas or an outline to organize thoughts is an excellent strategic practice.

Encouraging your students to take notes will allow them to reap all the benefits of handwriting we've reviewed in this article and more. It's an excellent idea to format your lectures in a way that allows students to summarize the material in their handwriting. They will not only retain the material better, but their brains will also be working extra hard and getting stronger!

Writing can also be an effective study tool. Because writing can help with memorization, students can benefit from handwriting activities that go beyond note-taking. For example, students can write and rewrite information that they struggle with, which will ultimately help them remember it better. If the subject is particularly challenging for the student, encourage them to do this rewriting early in the day when their minds are fresh. 

If they prefer, students can also use   mind maps   rather than a simple note format. These tools will allow them to connect different points while also allowing them to reap the benefits of writing down information they want to remember. 

Inspire Your Students to Write With Success by Design

At Success by Design, we have been developing educational planners since 1988. We make high-quality   planners with a purpose   for students in various grade levels. With these planners, you can even order a custom-designed cover to add some fun to the writing process. These eye-catching and effective planners will encourage your students to not only organize their school and homework schedules but to practice their handwriting skills as well. 

The 2022-2023 school year will mark Success by Design's 34th year of helping students and teachers stay organized. We invite you to learn more about the  benefits of printed planners  or browse our catalog to find the planner that fits your educational needs. To learn more about us and our products, use our  online contact form  or give us a call at 844-263-0872. For a limited time, shop our online-only sale for discounted student planners .

does writing notes help you remember

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Study shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on tablet or smartphone

Unique, complex information in analog methods likely gives brain more details to trigger memory.

A study of Japanese university students and recent graduates has revealed that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later. Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.

"Actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall," said Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo and corresponding author of the research recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience . The research was completed with collaborators from the NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting.

Contrary to the popular belief that digital tools increase efficiency, volunteers who used paper completed the note-taking task about 25% faster than those who used digital tablets or smartphones.

Although volunteers wrote by hand both with pen and paper or stylus and digital tablet, researchers say paper notebooks contain more complex spatial information than digital paper. Physical paper allows for tangible permanence, irregular strokes, and uneven shape, like folded corners. In contrast, digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the app.

"Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize," said Sakai.

In the study, a total of 48 volunteers read a fictional conversation between characters discussing their plans for two months in the near future, including 14 different class times, assignment due dates and personal appointments. Researchers performed pre-test analyses to ensure that the volunteers, all 18-29 years old and recruited from university campuses or NTT offices, were equally sorted into three groups based on memory skills, personal preference for digital or analog methods, gender, age and other aspects.

Volunteers then recorded the fictional schedule using a paper datebook and pen, a calendar app on a digital tablet and a stylus, or a calendar app on a large smartphone and a touch-screen keyboard. There was no time limit and volunteers were asked to record the fictional events in the same way as they would for their real-life schedules, without spending extra time to memorize the schedule.

After one hour, including a break and an interference task to distract them from thinking about the calendar, volunteers answered a range of simple (When is the assignment due?) and complex (Which is the earlier due date for the assignments?) multiple choice questions to test their memory of the schedule. While they completed the test, volunteers were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, which measures blood flow around the brain. This is a technique called functional MRI (fMRI), and increased blood flow observed in a specific region of the brain is a sign of increased neuronal activity in that area.

Participants who used a paper datebook filled in the calendar within about 11 minutes. Tablet users took 14 minutes and smartphone users took about 16 minutes. Volunteers who used analog methods in their personal life were just as slow at using the devices as volunteers who regularly use digital tools, so researchers are confident that the difference in speed was related to memorization or associated encoding in the brain, not just differences in the habitual use of the tools.

Volunteers who used analog methods scored better than other volunteers only on simple test questions. However, researchers say that the brain activation data revealed significant differences.

Volunteers who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization, and in the hippocampus -- an area known to be important for memory and navigation. Researchers say that the activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind's eye.

"Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin," Sakai explained.

Researchers say that personalizing digital documents by highlighting, underlining, circling, drawing arrows, handwriting color-coded notes in the margins, adding virtual sticky notes, or other types of unique mark-ups can mimic analog-style spatial enrichment that may enhance memory.

Although they have no data from younger volunteers, researchers suspect that the difference in brain activation between analog and digital methods is likely to be stronger in younger people.

"High school students' brains are still developing and are so much more sensitive than adult brains," said Sakai.

Although the current research focused on learning and memorization, the researchers encourage using paper for creative pursuits as well.

"It is reasonable that one's creativity will likely become more fruitful if prior knowledge is stored with stronger learning and more precisely retrieved from memory. For art, composing music, or other creative works, I would emphasize the use of paper instead of digital methods," said Sakai.

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Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Tokyo . Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • Keita Umejima, Takuya Ibaraki, Takahiro Yamazaki, Kuniyoshi L. Sakai. Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval . Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience , 2021; 15 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158

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Here’s Why You Remember Things Better When You Write Them Down

does writing notes help you remember

Abbey Ryan is a storyteller, preferably of stories in written form. Across the 5 years of her professional writing career, her work has been featured in The Chicago Tribune, Amazon, The Medical News Today, and more. When she's not writing (which is rare), she's likely traveling, painting, or on the hunt for a good snack. Read more...

A woman sitting at a table, her pen poised over a journal.

If you’re trying to stay organized, you don’t have to look much further than an app store. There are countless tools designed to help you remember the important things in life. But what if the best things to help improve memory involve simply writing it down?

Research suggests this is the case—more on that in a moment. And while each person has her own preferred method for writing notes and to-do lists, your brain holds onto information better after you’ve written it down. That’s a pretty good incentive for going old-school with a journal or day planner.

But why does writing things by hand affect your brain that way?

Why Your Brain Loves Pen and Paper What Should You Write Down, and When? Keep a To-Do List Jot Down Your Goals Stick to Just the Essentials Take Notes on Podcasts and Shows Write Down Important Stuff More Than Once Check Your Notes Take Advantage of Pen Colors for Memory

Why Your Brain Loves Pen and Paper

A person taking notes on paper in blue ink.

When you type, you use your fine motor skills in a more limited way than when you write by hand. Using a pen and paper is one of those things to help improve memory because it offers a deeper sensory experience than touching a keyboard. Since you’re crafting each letter by hand, it requires more dexterity to write with a pen than it does to type.

Stylish and Useful Spiral Bound Notebooks

Things get interesting when you look at the impact this difference has on your brain. Handwriting’s combination of motor skills, touch sensation, and visual perception actually reinforces the natural learning process.

Researchers at the Norwegian Center for Learning Environment and Behavioural Research in Education found that reading handwritten text activates different parts of the brain than reading typed text.

Your memory of handwritten words is tied to the movements required to make each letter. This might be what helps the memory of what we’ve written hang around in our brains a bit longer. Meanwhile, pressing buttons on a keyboard activates fewer areas of the brain, so we forget what we’ve typed faster.

This makes perfect sense when you think about how humans first evolved the ability to read and write. The process was highly connected to physical touch as, for thousands of years, handwriting involved carving symbols into rock or pressing them into clay. Our minds and bodies are primed for this kind of physical interaction with the world. But typing is a far cry from creating the shape of each individual letter by hand.

So, when you write by hand, you actually give your brain’s encoding process a boost. Encoding refers to the process of sending information to your brain’s hippocampus, where the decision is made to either store the information long-term or let it go. If you write something by hand, all that complex sensory information increases the chances the knowledge will be stored for later.

In short, writing by hand forces your brain to process information in a more detailed way, which helps you successfully load that information into your memory.

What Should You Write Down, and When?

A man taking notes on small sticky notes with a pen.

To reap these benefits, all you need to do is write things down by hand more often. That doesn’t mean you have to write down everything , though—that would get exhausting.

Instead, strategize with these tips to help you remember what you really need.

Keep a To-Do List

A woman's hand writing in a notebook.

We suggest you start by handwriting your to-do list for the day, week, or month. This simple strategy allows you to test things to help improve memory by writing little notes.

You can back up your list on your phone’s calendar if you want. Soon, though, you might find you don’t even need those notifications anymore.

Another benefit of handwriting your to-do list is not being distracted by a constant barrage of phone notifications and reminders.

Jot Down Your Goals

Another great way to test out this idea is to write down your goals. Having a written list of things you want to accomplish makes them feel more real, and prioritizes them in your brain. This little memory boost might make it easier to take the necessary steps to achieve those dreams.

does writing notes help you remember

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does writing notes help you remember

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Stick to Just the Essentials

When you type your notes, it’s easy to include more info than you need. Because handwriting takes longer, it forces you to think critically about what’s really worth jotting down.

This process of critical thinking can boost your memory even further and train your brain to hone in on the most important aspects of what you’re learning and trying to remember.

Take Notes on Podcasts and Shows

If you listen to a podcast or watch a show to learn something, take a few notes. It’s a great way to ensure the information sticks.

Research suggests  college students who take notes by hand remember the information better than those who don’t. That’s because, as we mentioned above, writing by hand is always slower than typing.

The Best Erasable Pens for Imperfect Writers

Students who handwrite notes can’t write nearly as fast as a lecturer speaks, so they have to distill the information and make wise choices about what to write. This gives them a better working knowledge of the subject—even if they never look at their notes again.

Meanwhile, those who type notes might simply transcribe the lecture, rather than processing the information in their own words.

If you’re trying to learn something new from a show or podcast, you can use this same tactic to boost your memory. Even just writing down a few essential words and ideas can seriously improve your understanding.

Write Down Important Stuff More Than Once

Is something on your list really, really important? Maximize the benefits of handwriting for memory improvement by writing it down a couple of times. You can combine the benefits of rewriting with the benefits of reorganizing and summarizing by not just copying your notes but restructuring them.

does writing notes help you remember

TOPS Spiral Steno Notebooks

You can always get a fancy leather journal to braindump at the end of the day, but a simple notepad or these inexpensive steno notebooks can do the trick just as easily.

Writing down important things  right before you go to sleep might also help you retain that information better. Taking a moment to “brain dump” before bed can also be a really great way to help your brain shift gears and transition to a more restful state before bed.

Check Your Notes

When you handwrite important notes in ink , you often find you remember them without ever reading them again. However, another benefit of this tactic is the information is always right there when you need it.

As we mentioned above, even reading handwritten text involves more parts of your brain than reading typed text. So, rereading your notes can also boost your memory .

does writing notes help you remember

LEUCHTTURM1917 Pocket Notebook

The best notebook is the one you'll always have on hand. These pocket notebooks are perfect for taking everywhere.


Take Advantage of Pen Colors for Memory

Research suggests that different colors can help your memory performance …but what color pen helps you remember the most? The best color to write notes in for memorization may vary from person to person, but some research suggests that red ink is ideal for memory improvement.

Learning what color pen helps you remember the most and then implementing that color in your note-taking is a great way to make memorization easier. Keep using the best color to write notes in for memorization and you’ll find yourself effortlessly recalling important information and tasks.

Of course, you can download all the apps and programs you want to help you keep track of tasks, ideas, and information. (And you can even use tools like Evernote and OneNote to collect your written notes!)

However, handwriting a few of your notes is so fast and easy, you’ve nothing to lose by giving it a try. So, pick up a pocket-sized notebook or calendar and try it out! It might change your life way faster than any hot new app.

Abbey Ryan

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Why does writing my own notes help me learn?

There's a reason why writing your own notes is good for exam revision.

Luis Villazon

In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? (£17.99, Jossey-Bass) psychologist Prof Daniel Willingham says that “memory is the residue of thought”. We remember the things we think about, not necessarily the things we are told.

When you write notes in your own words, you force yourself to reframe someone else’s ideas into a form that you can concisely express on paper. This mental effort increases the chance of this information being transferred to your long-term memory later.

Many studies have found that handwritten notes,particularly those with arrows, diagrams and margin doodles, improve information retention . Typing is quicker, but it is too repetitive and mechanical to stimulate your focus and attention.

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Science News Explores

Handwriting beats typing when it comes to taking class notes, writing by hand turns on parts of the brain involved in learning and memory, new data show.

does writing notes help you remember

Taking notes by hand, rather than using a keyboard, may boost how well you remember new information, a study finds.

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By Diane Lincoln

November 11, 2020 at 6:30 am

You can improve learning — and potentially remember more — by handwriting your class notes. Although computer technology is often necessary today, using a pen or pencil activates more areas of your brain than a keyboard does. These are findings of a new study.

As digital devices have taken over society, “keyboard activity is now often recommended as a substitute for early handwriting,” a new study notes. The idea is that typing may be easier for young children.

“Some schools in Norway have become completely digital,” notes Audrey van der Meer, the new study’s leader. The human brain has evolved to interact with the world in as many ways as possible, she notes. She believes that “young children should learn to write by hand successfully, and, at the same time learn to manage a keyboard.”

Van der Meer is a neuropsychologist, someone who measures brain activity to better understand learning and behaviors. She works at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Using a pen, or a digital stylus, involves more of the brain than using a keyboard, her new findings show. This is because writing and printing involve intricate movements that activate more areas of the brain. The increased brain activity, “gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on,” she explains.

Think about it. The same movement is required to type each letter on a keyboard. In contrast, when we write, our brain needs to think about and retrieve memories of the shape of each letter. We also need to use our eyes to watch what shapes we’re writing. And we need to control our hands to press a pen or pencil to shape the different letters. All of this uses and connects more areas of the brain.

Along the way, these processes appear to “open the brain up for learning,” says Van der Meer. So learning through only one format — digital — could be harmful, she worries.

Van der Meer also points out that taking notes by hand stimulates “visual notetaking.”  Rather than typing blindly, the visual notetaker has to think about what is important to write down. Then, key words can be “interlinked by boxes, and arrows, and supplemented by small drawings.”

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Hands-on approach

The potential benefits of handwriting for learning and memory have been debated for some time. The new study set out to answer two questions. How does handwriting compare to using a keyboard or drawing when it comes to learning new information? And how similar are handwriting and drawing?

In all, 12 adults and 12 seventh-graders took part. All were used to writing in cursive. Researchers asked each of them to write and draw with a digital pen. Each was also asked to type on a keyboard. While performing these tasks, each volunteer wore a cap that held electrodes next to their head. It looked somewhat like a hair net fitted with 256 sensors.

Those sensors recorded the recruits’ brainwaves , a type of electrical activity, as EEGs. That’s short for electroencephalograms (Ee-lek-troh-en-SEFF-uh-loh-gramz). The electrodes noted which parts of the brain turned on during each task. And they showed that the brain activity was about the same in both the kids and the adults.

Writing turned on memory areas in the brain. Typing didn’t. Drawing images and writing also turned on parts of the brain involved with learning. Writing even activated language areas.

This suggests, Van der Meer says, that when we write by hand, “we both learn better and remember better.” Her team described its findings July 28 in Frontiers in Psychology . Her team now suggests “that children, from an early age, must be exposed to handwriting and drawing activities in school.” 

Keyboards are not bad

This study does not recommend banning digital devices. In fact, its authors point out, computers and other devices with keyboards have become essential in many modern classrooms. Keyboarding also can be especially helpful for students with certain special needs (such as if they have trouble using their hands). But nearly all students will benefit from learning handwriting and drawing at an early age, the researchers now conclude.

Based on her data, Van der Meer now says “I would use a keyboard to write an essay, but I’d take notes by hand [in class].”

These new findings back up other studies showing potential benefits of handwriting, says Joshua Weiner.  He noted that “different parts of the brain might work together during writing versus typing.” Weiner works at the Iowa Neuroscience Institute in Iowa City. This institute is part of the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine. Although Weiner was not involved with the new study, his own research focuses on the formation of brain circuits.

His own students type faster than they can write, he finds. Slowing down seems to require them to “think more” when taking notes, he says. He adds that this could “improve memory and enhance learning.” Weiner concludes that “writing may be beneficial” as it involves more of a “brain response.”

Van der Meer recognizes that learning to write by hand is a slower process. She also is aware that it requires fine motor skills. But, she adds, that’s good: “If we don’t challenge our brain, it can’t reach its full potential.”

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4 Reasons Writing Things Down on Paper Still Reigns Supreme

Handwritten notes are fast, accurate, boost brain activity, and optimize memory..

Posted March 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

  • A recent side-by-side comparison of analog paper notebooks vs. mobile digital devices used fMRI neuroimaging to identify specific brain activation differences during memory retrieval.
  • Analog notebook use activates multiple brain regions associated with optimal memory-encoding (and subsequent retrieval) more robustly than using digital devices, the researchers found.
  • Handwriting a detailed personal schedule can be faster and more accurate than using a tablet or smartphone for the same information.
  • Bringing a digital document to life with different colors, shapes, arrows, highlights, and other personal flairs may mimic some of the memory-encoding benefits of handwritten notebooks.


Handwriting your weekly schedule in a Filofax-like appointment book may seem archaic. But new research suggests that analog personal schedules—written by hand in a paper notebook using pens, pencils, markers, and different colored highlighters—can outshine using a digital device for the same information in at least four different ways.

This "paper notebooks vs. mobile devices" study ( Umejima et al., 2021 ) led by a team of researchers at the University of Tokyo was published on March 19 in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience .

For this multi-pronged study, senior author Kuniyoshi Sakai , a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo, and his Sakai Lab members investigated how writing down scheduled appointments in a paper notebook compared to inputting the information digitally into a mobile electronic tablet or smartphone.

This study's cohort consisted of 48 Japanese university students and recent graduates (aged 18-29 years). Study participants were randomly divided into an analog "Note" group that used paper notebooks for a semester's worth of daily schedule management , a digital "Tablet" group, and a digital "Phone" group. Both mobile "Device" groups typed their daily schedules into a generic digital device template.

"Participants who used a paper datebook filled in the calendar within about 11 minutes. Tablet users took 14 minutes and smartphone users took about 16 minutes," the authors explain. "The duration of writing down schedules was significantly shorter for the Note group than the Tablet and Phone groups, and accuracy was much higher for the Note group."

One hour after filling out a relatively complicated personal schedule that included lots of different class times and due dates for assignments, the volunteers were asked to answer some detailed questions related to their personal calendar while inside a functional MRI (fMRI). This neuroimaging scanner measures increased neuronal activity in specific brain areas based on increased blood flow to a particular cortical or subcortical region.

Four Ways Handwritten Notes on Paper Top Digital Note-Taking

  • Jotting things down on paper is faster.
  • Handwritten notes tend to be more accurate and have personalized flairs.
  • Handwriting in a notebook triggers more robust brain activity.
  • Writing by hand is associated with stronger neural encoding and memory retrieval.

In addition to being faster and more accurate, the fMRI neuroimaging data from this "paper notebooks vs. mobile devices" study suggest that the act of physically writing things down on paper is associated with more robust brain activation in multiple areas and better memory recall.

For example, during the memory retrieval phase, study participants in every group showed some degree of increased brain activity in language-related frontal regions, the visual cortices, the precuneus, and bilaterally in the hippocampus. However, the researchers found that "activations in these regions were significantly higher for the Note group than those for the Tablet and Phone groups."

#1 Tip: Use Paper Notebooks for Information You Need to Learn or Memorize

Based on these findings, the authors speculate that "the complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory."

"Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin," Sakai said in a news release . "[Handwriting on] paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall."

does writing notes help you remember

"Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize," he added.

If keeping a digital calendar is more efficient in terms of sharing your schedule/availability with colleagues or coworkers, the researchers suggest that adding some unique shapes and colorful flairs to a digital document might mimic some of the "analog" benefits of jotting things down by hand.

The researchers' closing advice: "Personalizing digital documents by highlighting, underlining, circling, drawing arrows, handwriting color-coded notes in the margins, adding virtual sticky notes or other types of unique mark-ups can mimic analog-style spatial enrichment that may enhance memory."

LinkedIn image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Keita Umejima, Takuya Ibaraki, Takahiro Yamazaki, and Kuniyoshi L. Sakai. "Paper Notebooks vs. Mobile Devices: Brain Activation Differences During Memory Retrieval." Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (First published: March 19, 2021) DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.634158

Christopher Bergland

Christopher Bergland is a retired ultra-endurance athlete turned science writer, public health advocate, and promoter of cerebellum ("little brain") optimization.

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Why writing by hand is still the best way to retain information

Typing might be faster, but longhand stays with you better.

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Picture this: it’s a work day at an enterprise payments processing company, and there is a critical data engineering task that needs to be completed. In this case, I’m the data engineer who needs to finish the task, but I am missing information necessary for my data model to be finished. I heard the information in a meeting. It was discussed in the daily standup. I have some vague typed notes, but I can’t recall the technical details I need to finish my work. No one is available to answer my question. It’s then that it hits me: I should have written down notes by hand during the meeting.

Writing notes by hand would have given me several different tangible resources that could help me find the critical missing information: a stronger memory of the meeting I was in, the gaps in the details of the discussion that occurred, and the notes themselves that would help me trigger a stronger recall of the events just by reviewing them on paper. Detailed typed notes would not help my recall and retention of the information in the meetings in the same way that notes written by hand would, though they would have been helpful.

It’s hard to keep documentation accurate for a whole organization or even a team with day-to-day process, programming, business, and client changes at the micro and macro levels. But as individuals who consume new information on a minute-by-minute basis, we can learn what we need to with more information retention, cognitive recall, stronger reading comprehension, and a tactile, visual memory of the information we consumed just by hand writing our notes. Writing by hand still remains the most powerful way to learn and retain information.

Writing by hand creates stronger reading comprehension

It would come as no surprise to most people that human beings are visual learners. This applies even to writing, though at first written words and visual learning may seem different. When a person thinks of “visual learning”, what may be pictured are videos, images, and other forms of graphic information and media. Yet letters and words are visual representations of a mutually-agreed upon social communication form: written language.

When a young human is learning to read, they must first learn to recognize the different shapes called “letters” that belong to their native alphabet. A letter means nothing to a person who does not know what sound or function that letter is supposed to represent in language. So as human beings, before we learn what a word is, we first must learn that the graphical representation of a letter means something. We must also learn the differences between individual letters as well as variations in the shapes, sizes, and styles of those letters.

In a 2012 study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education , researchers Karin James and Laura Engelhardt observed of pre-literate children, “When children begin to print, their motor output (of a letter) does not conform to prototypical lettering: each output (which is also the perceptual input) can be said to be noisy relative to the model.” Despite the fact that the children’s recreation of a letter was messy compared to the letter model, their brains still accurately recognized that the letter they drew was the same one they attempted to copy. As James and Engelhardt said, the children recognized these letters “presumably because the children themselves created them.” This is visual learning and acumen: the children needed to learn what an individual letter looked like in its various “noisy” and exemplary forms in order to identify and comprehend that letter in the future, regardless of its representation.

Handwriting is a unique expression of each person who learns to write; they represent letters and words as a written output of what they perceive those letters to be. James and Engelhardt showed in their study that this repetitive, creative handwriting also creates stronger reading comprehension and maturity of language recognition. “The most novel result of our ROI analysis,” say James and Engelhardt, “is that visual processing of letters is affected by specific motor experience—the act of printing a letter”.

Writing by hand creates a tactile information recall

One of the most important parts of learning new information is the ability to retain it and recall it later when it is relevant. Writing by hand on paper creates a tactile, personalized experience each time a person takes notes. The complex experience of hand writing on paper contains a multitude of variable elements: the creativity of an individual’s written representation of language, the texture of the paper itself, the fine motor skills needed to translate thoughts into written language, the engagement of the physical senses, and even the reading comprehension strength that we learned of earlierAll of these complexities create a stronger memory of the information that is taken in during the note taking.

There have been a few scientific studies done on the subject of information processing through digital note taking and notes taken by hand. A recent study led by neuroscientist Professor Kuniyoshi Sakai at the University of Tokyo published in March 2021 showed that subjects who recorded calendar event information on paper showed more brain activity than subjects who recorded the same information onto a smartphone when they attempted to recall details about that calendar information later. And they recalled/entered the information 25% faster when writing it by hand.

Professor Sakai suggests that analog and paper learning experiences cannot be mimicked by the uniform ways in which digital devices represent information. “Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin,” says the neuroscientist. That stronger tactile memory is easier for the brain to recall later on even when the paper isn’t present later; so is the information the brain associates with that learning experience.

Typing doesn’t have the same cognitive effects

We know that typing does not engage the brain with the same level of cognitive interaction as handwriting for various reasons. This has been a hot topic in the early education sphere around the world for over a decade as typed notes and digital notepads become more and more popular in classrooms. In fact, replacing handwriting with typing notes could be detrimental to early literacy skills because it lacks the creativity necessary for strong reading comprehension and faster note-taking.

In a study from the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology , Professor Audrey van der Meer confirms that a keystroke on a keyboard lacks the creativity of handwriting and won’t challenge memory the way that writing by hand does. Two professors from University of Umeå, Sweden champion writing by hand for students as a cognitive process necessary for the best learning experience: “Think of writing as learning an instrument: separate skills…need to be practiced in order for the player to become independent of the mechanics and allow for full expression of…the meaning.”

Although typing notes can be useful and even faster for some note-takers, ultimately it does not have the cognitive, tactile, memory, or visual cognitive effects that people can get when they write by hand. Typing notes can be good, but it won’t make it easier to remember what was said later on.

Proceed with caution

Perhaps you’re like me and you already take notes by hand sometimes. I hope you’ve been writing down the parts of this blog that you want to remember if that’s the case! If not and you also like to type sometimes like me, be nice to your hands as you begin your handwritten note journey again. Be prepared to feel challenged physically and mentally as you develop a new practice. Spend some money on a notebook you like, with paper that feels good against the rough scratch or smooth roll of your favorite pen. Those tactile moments will live in your mind when you want the information again later.

Writing by hand remains the best way to take in new information. It helps with reading comprehension, creativity, memory, and information retention in ways that are unmatched by other learning tools. Your writing, your shorthand, and your notes that look incomprehensible to others are a special part of your processing that help you learn in your way. So go ahead and get writing. By hand, of course.

Is This Normal? “I Have to Write Things Down in Order to Remember Them”

In an age of typing and texting, this feels like an analog anomaly.

does writing help you remember

In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves —  Is This Normal?

My memory problems are well documented on The Swaddle, but there’s a unique version that feels particularly abnormal that I’ve yet to explore: I struggle to remember things — dates, times, to-dos, thoughts, plans, anything really — unless I write them down. If I make a note by hand, I’m 90% likely to remember its content. If I don’t, well, I’d like to say it’s 50-50, but it’s probably more 30-70; the information just doesn’t stick. This situation feels like a hopelessly analog anomaly in today’s world of typing and texting, and I regularly invest in sleek little notebooks just to minimize my embarrassment of them. Does writing help me remember, or is it something else?

Writing by hand really does have an effect on memory, according to multiple studies. The most widely cited is a 2014 study that examined note-taking via pen-and-paper versus on a laptop among 300 U.S. college students. Researchers found that students taking notes the old-fashioned way were more able to correctly answer questions about the lecture they sat through. The team credits this to the fact that handwriting notes is a slower process, which means in order to keep up with the speed of the spoken word, students would analyze the information and rephrase in real time in order to capture the points most efficiently. By contrast, students taking notes on laptops would take more notes; particularly speedy typers would create a verbatim transcript. But without the need to synthesize the information as part of the note-taking process, they retained less knowledge from the lecture.

My daily-life notes are certainly not as complex as a college lecture, but there’s evidence that just the physical act of writing may exercise and boost our working memory (that is, all of the short-term information we retain and require to live our lives and do our work without devolving into hot, forgetful messes).

“When we write by hand, we have to coordinate verbal and fine movement systems,” Helen Macpherson, PhD, of the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University, told HuffPost Australia in 2016.

The complexity of this coordination results in “body memory,” Edouard Gentaz, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva, told The Guardian in a 2014 article that explored handwriting within education. “Some people have difficulty reading again after a stroke. To help them remember the alphabet again, we ask them to trace the letters with their finger,” Gentaz added. “Often it works, the gesture restoring the memory.”

Related on The Swaddle:

How Forgetting Makes You Smarter

By contrast, typing or texting just involves identifying the right letter. And working memory alone involves no physical reinforcement whatsoever. I like to think of the difference between handwriting, typing and remembering without any textual aid as the difference between cooking yourself a long and complicated meal, buying something from a vending machine, and being fed by an IV. Which is more likely to stick? In which process would one really learn?

This “body memory” activates different parts of the brain than mere identification/typing does, according to functional MRI scans .And it’s staying power has been borne out by other studies that taught letters to children too young to read and taught letters from unfamiliar scripts (Tamil and Bengali) to English-speaking adults. In both scenarios, the children and adults who had learned to handwrite the new characters were better at identifying them than those who had learned via keyboard.

Ultimately, however, the biggest benefit handwriting may give to my memory is a fake-out: the ability to refer to my notes and, thus, provide a reminder that aids recall. In this way, while writing helps me, as an individual, remember, it may actually degrade humanity’s overall memory. Handwriting, as much as punching in a calendar reminder to call your mom, is a technology that has allowed humans to rely less and less on pure memory.

In a different 2014 study that compared the recall ability of people who took handwritten notes with people who had to rely solely on their working memory , the note-takers, whose notes were unexpectedly withheld after the exercise, floundered on follow-up tests compared to the non-note-takers. In other words, they had relied on the technology that would assist their memory, rather than on their own brains. Which means while handwriting is more supportive of memory now, there may come a day when someone asks, “I can’t remember anything without typing it into my phone. Is this normal?” and the answer will be yes.

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.

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How Writing Helps Us Remember

Writing Helps Us Improve Our Memory

Typing is one of the quickest methods of note-taking, letting us record as quickly as possible so that we can focus on listening.

Although typing helps us capture more information, research has shown that this often means we remember and understand less of what we record. A 2014 study found that students who took notes by typing did not understand and apply the concepts as well as their peers who took handwritten notes. They also remembered less of the material than their peers.

One reason for this is that writing forces us to slow down. In a webinar hosted by the National Library Board on smart note-taking, author Dr Sönke Ahrens explains: “When we know that we can’t copy everything we hear, we force ourselves to focus on the gist. [To do this] we have to translate it into our own words.”

Quick Tips To Remember Better

1. Engage in active recall . This is a method commonly used by students, where you create questions and answers based on a topic, then repeatedly test yourself on those questions – for example, by using flashcards.

2. Practise spaced repetition . Revisit your notes regularly, but also space out your revision sessions over time.

3. Try “chunking”. Separate the new information into digestible segments so that they are easier to remember.

4. Use acronyms . They are a type of mnemonic device, which are memory techniques that help us recall and retain information better.

Paper or tablet what's the difference.

Paper or Tablet?

Today, technology allows us to take notes by hand on devices such as tablets. If writing is better than typing, does the material – paper (or the lack of it) – make a difference?

One Japanese study found that students who wrote in a paper notebook scored better on a memory test as compared to the notetakers who used tablets and smartphones.

Some possible reasons for this are the tactile and spatial properties of writing on paper. Paper provides more fixed cues for memory recall, such as visualising where specific information is located on a page, or the notes we write in the margins.

Digital Alternatives to Paper

1. note-taking apps.

Today, a stylus pen can turn almost any touchscreen device into a notebook. Note-taking apps make the writing process even more efficient and organised.

Some apps have a lasso feature so you can move around sections on a page. Others offer a search function, or let you convert your handwriting to text. For iPad users, GoodNotes 5 is highly recommended. For Android users, try Noteshelf or Flexcil.

2. E-ink Tablets

These are suitable for anyone who wants a traditional handwriting experience but does not like regularly spending on notebooks. Unlike regular tablets, e-ink tablets do not use a backlight and do not create glare. Instead, their screens reflect light from surrounding light sources – much like paper. Brands sold in Singapore include Onyx Boox and the Kobo Elipsa.

3. Smart Notebooks

These combine the texture of paper with the benefits of digital note-taking. Some smart notebooks come with smart pens that digitally record your notes as you write. Others are reusable, allowing you to simply wipe the notebook after filling it up. The Rocketbook brand is available at Popular bookstores and online retailers.

writing or typing is better depends on what you want to achieve

Write To Retain, Type to Record

The effectiveness of our note-taking may depend on the method, rather than the medium, we use to record our notes. Many note-taking techniques, such as mind mapping and the Cornell system, require us to translate information into our own words and make connections between different pieces of information. This helps us better understand what we note down, instead of merely scribing or recording.

Reviewing our notes is also an important part of the retaining process. We forget 50% of new information just one hour after learning it. This means that good note-taking does not benefit our memory in the long run if we do not revisit the new material.

It is also important to look at the context of our note-taking. In work meetings, for example, we may take minutes simply to jot down discussion points. When our main goal is to record rather than to remember, methods such as mind mapping may not be necessary, and simple verbatim note-taking may suffice.  

Ultimately, whether writing or typing is better depends on what you want to achieve. Look at the aim of your note-taking, then choose the best method and medium to fulfil it.

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3 Scientific Links Between Handwriting Your Notes and Memory

Suzy frisch.

  • August 3rd, 2016

3 Scientific Links Between Handwriting Your Notes and Memory

At conferences, lectures, and meetings, it’s common to see the people around you typing notes on their laptops, tablets, or phones. Maybe you’re doing it too!

And why not? Typing is an incredibly efficient way to capture large amounts of information.

But if you’re looking to actually master the material, typing notes is actually is not the best way to do that. Recent studies from psychologists and neuroscientists alike have found that handwriting is king for effective learning.

It has to do with how the brain processes different inputs of information. More specifically, it matters whether you transcribe a speaker’s content digitally — or instead capture its essence on paper.

As digital continues to dominate, going old-school with handwriting just might work to your advantage. Writing by hand tends to boost your ability to retain information, comprehend new ideas, and be more productive — with the added bonus of eliminating the distractions of your device.

Read on to learn more about three scientific links between writing out your notes by hand and actually remembering the important stuff.  

1. The pen is mightier than the keyboard

So say researchers Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA, who recently published a paper with that title in Psychological Science .

The three experiments they did led them to conclude that using laptops for notetaking might actually impair learning. Why? Because it often leads people to process information more shallowly.

In a nutshell, if you type your notes, you probably tend to record lectures verbatim. If you put pen to paper, you have to be more selective in recapping key components.

Paper notetakers’ brains are working to digest, summarize, and capture the heart of the information. This, in turn, promotes understanding and retention.

Mueller and Oppenheimer found that participants who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than those who took traditional paper notes.

“Laptop notetakers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning,” they wrote.

When you really need to grasp new material, consider dusting off your trusty pen and paper.

When you try to recall the information later, your brain will thank you for making its job easier.  

2. Robust recall: Handwriting makes a difference

Some notetakers argue that they’re more productive when they type because they can capture more material faster.

But without reviewing and studying those notes after an event, all of that extra transcribing doesn’t do much good.

Psychology professors Dung Bui, Joel Myerson, and Sandra Hale at Washington University found that taking computer notes does offer the immediate benefit of better recall than well-organized, handwritten notes.

So the computer wins…at first.

But then their research, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology , uncovered something interesting: that advantage disappears in about 24 hours.

By that point, people who typed their notes actually performed worse on tests about the material.

The researchers concluded that the typing notetakers had worse recall because they weren’t actively summarizing and synthesizing key points.

“Taking organized notes presumably involves deeper and more thorough processing of the lecture information, whereas transcribing requires only a shallow encoding of the information,” they explained.

Next time to you need to recall information from a lecture or meeting for more than 24 hours, consider handwriting your notes. The material will stick with you longer.  

3. Writing your way to a healthy brain

Some people prefer taking notes electronically because their handwriting has turned into illegible scrawl.

If that sounds like you, don’t put away the pen and paper just yet!

There are brain health and developmental reasons to keep writing on paper.

Research from psychology professor Karin James of Indiana University evaluated children who hadn’t yet learned to read or write.

Published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education , her study engaged children by asking them to reproduce a single letter by typing it, drawing it on plain paper, or tracing it over a dotted outline.

Then the researchers put the children in a functional MRI brain scanner and had them study the image again.

While reviewing the image, scans showed that kids who drew the letters activated three distinct areas of their brains.

Brains of children who traced or typed the letter didn’t experience the same effect.

The study demonstrates the learning benefits of physically writing letters, James notes, especially the gains that come from engaging the brain’s motor pathways.

But that doesn’t mean the perks of handwriting only apply to kids.

The more you use those neural pathways, the better it is for your overall brain health. The phrases “lifelong learning” and “use it or lose it” are never more true than with your brain. Both activities ward off debilitating disease like Alzheimer’s and keep your cognitive abilities strong.

In other words, when you want to check out Facebook during a boring talk at a conference, go for it! That’s a great reason to have your computer open.

But when you’re trying to capture and retain complex material — or simply stay extra-sharp — put the laptop away…and take out a pen.

Redbooth’s beautiful new Gantt charts first came to life on the pages of a notebook. Check out designer Sarah Tanner’s sketches and notes here .

does writing notes help you remember

Suzy is an award-winning journalist and writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She started out as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and has worked as an editor for Twin Cities Business magazine. Suzy loves discovering people's stories and making complex topics easy to understand. Outside of work, she enjoys doing triathlons and going on adventures with her husband and three daughters. Read more by Suzy Frisch »

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Research Matters / The Magic of Writing Stuff Down

author avatar

Writer Takes All

Enter the laptop, the benefits of handwriting, consider this ….

[L]aptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even—or perhaps especially—when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking. Although more notes are beneficial, at least to a point, if the notes are taken indiscriminately or by mindlessly transcribing content, as is more likely the case on a laptop than when notes are taken longhand, the benefit disappears. … [D]espite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.

Beesley, A. D., & Apthorp, H. S. (2010). Classroom instruction that works, second edition: Research report. Denver, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Beeson, S. A. (1996). The effect of writing after reading on college nursing students' factual knowledge and synthesis of knowledge. Journal of Nursing Education , 35 (6), 258–263.

Berninger, V. W., Abbot, R. D., Augsburger, A., & Garcia, N. (2009). Comparison of pen and keyboard transcription modes in children with and without learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly , 32 (3), 123–141.

James, K. H., & Engelhardt, L. (2012). The effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development in pre-literate children. Trends in Neuroscience and Education , 1 (1), 32–42.

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science , 25 (6), 1159–1168.

Stevenson, N. C., & Just, C. (2014). In early education, why teach handwriting before keyboarding? Early Childhood Education Journal , 42 (1), 49–56.

Willingham, D. (2003). Students remember … what they think about. American Educator , 27 (2), 37–41.

does writing notes help you remember

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

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