We are fortunate to live in a time where the boundaries and limitations that previously capped our learning are being challenged and systematically dismantled as a result of available technology and our creative applications of it. However, by embracing these technologies that absorb the consequences of failure, enable perfection through practice, and accelerate learning, are we losing anything in the process? Some researchers say, “yes!”

As more of our learning emanates from computers, tablets and phones, there has been a sharp decline in the frequency with which we use a pen or pencil to write. Increasingly, students in school and people in the workplace resort to typing notes, reminders and more. And, the results may negatively affect knowledge and skill acquisition, recall and use.

How Technology Affects Learning

According to Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington, fMRI data demonstrates that writing by hand activates “massive regions involved in thinking, language and working memory.” It also stimulates the reticular activation system, responsible for filtering information and concentrating our attention. All of this is necessary for the development of new skills and abilities. As a result, activating these brain regions is a high priority when learning.

Jane Vincent, guest teacher and visiting fellow in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, conducted a study of 650 university students in 10 countries and reported: “many of the students in our study found [that] making handwritten notes leads to greater retention of data than if it is typed.” Her research found that both word recall and retention improve when notes are taken by hand versus with the use of technology.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, one of the problems is that “there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information.”

That “something,” according to researchers Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, may be that taking notes by hand requires different cognitive processing than doing so in a technology-enabled way: “these different processes have consequences for learning. Writing by hand is slower and more cumbersome than typing, and students cannot possibly write down every word in a lecture. Instead, they listen, digest and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information. Thus, taking notes by hand forces the brain to engage in some heavy ‘mental lifting,’ and these efforts foster comprehension and retention.”

In addition to the mental lift, simply lifting one’s hand might account for improved learning on the part of those who write versus type. According to Longchamp et al 2011, the “connection with muscle movement provides visual receptors and memory capacity.” In fact, it might not even matter what one writes. Something as nonsensical as doodling appears to be beneficial. In one study, those who doodled during a voicemail recalled 29 percent more of its contents than those who didn’t doodle.

Offer Opportunities to Write

These research results aren’t intended as an indictment of technology or an argument against its role in learning. Instead, they represent a tremendous opportunity to take learning practices to a new level with some simple and inexpensive instructional strategies that encourage writing and the benefits that come along with it. For instance:

  • Develop and distribute physical note-taking tools to accompany technology-enabled learning. Even if they never refer to them again, participants will realize the positive effects through the action of writing.
  • Build physical note-taking activities into the instructional design. Offer breaks throughout the learning experience for reflection, idea capture and journaling. Opportunities to reflect can reduce stress and allow participants to get more instructional value.
  • Consider “create your own job aid” options. Rather than supplying a pre-constructed performance support tool, invite participants to synthesize their insights into their own unique and handwritten representation.

Small, low-tech adjustments like these can supplement the sophisticated systems and strategies we’ve devised for learning. They can activate regions of the brain that encourage greater recall, integration and application. They can slow things down enough to allow for the thinking time required for growth and change. And they can help us get learning “write.”

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