“Writing By Hand Fosters Neural Connections…”

Imagine this conversation that you and I might have:

ANDREW: The fastest way to drive from here to the school is via South Street.

YOU: It is? That seems like a long detour. Why would I go that way?

ANDREW: I didn’t say it was the fastest; I said it was the best because it’s the prettiest.

YOU: You DID say it was fastest…wait, the prettiest? It’s basically junk yards and construction sites.

ANDREW: Yes, but because of all the bakeries, it smells really nice.

YOU: What does that have to do with fastest/prettiest?

ANDREW: Why are you being so unpleasant and difficult? South Street is the best route…

I suspect you would think: “this conversation is very frustrating and unhelpful because the goal posts keep moving.”

That is: I initially claimed that South Street is the fastest…but keep moving my claims as soon as you object. (And, oddly, I’m mad at you for being unreasonable.)

I routinely notice this pattern when I ask questions about the claim that “handwriting is better than laptops for note taking.”

Watch the goalposts move:

CLAIM: Handwriting is better than laptops for note taking. This study says so.

ANDREW: That study starts with the BIZARRE assumption that students can’t learn how to do new things — like, how to take notes correctly. And, research since then has routinely complicated or contradicted it.

CLAIM: I didn’t say laptops are better beacuse of this study. It’s because writing by hand changes neural networks. This research says so.

ANDREW: That research says that writing by hand helps students learn to write by hand. Of course it does.

But that doesn’t mean that writing by hand helps students learn other things — like, say, history or chemistry or German. Can you show me research supporting that claim?

CLAIM: I can’t, but when students write on laptops they distract students around them.

ANDREW: Yes, but that’s a completely different claim than the one you started with.

CLAIM: Why are you being so unpleasant and difficult? Writing by hand is better than taking notes on laptops!

Once again, I find this conversation frustrating and unhelpful. SO MANY MOVING GOALPOSTS.

I am entirely open to the idea that handwriting is better. But if someone makes that claim, and says it’s “research-based,” I’d like them to provide research that actually shows this claim to be true.

A bright yellow American football goalpost, above a bright green field and against dark stadium

So far, that turns out to be a big ask.

This idea that “handwriting is better than keyboarding” has popped up again (I suspect because of a recent study), so I want to re-investigate this claim — with a keen eye on those goalposts.

Reasonable Start

If you see a headline that says, “Why Writing by Hand Is Better for Memory and Learning,” you might interpret that claim roughly this way:

Students who take handwritten notes — in their 6th grade history class, say, or their 10th grade science class — remember more of that material after 2 weeks than students who took notes on laptops.

Yes, I conjured up some of those specifics: “6th grade history,” “two weeks later.” But those seem like reasonable extrapolations. What else could the claim substantively mean?

Briefly: plausible goalpost = “students remember more history 2 weeks later.”

So, let’s look at the recent research being used to support this claim.

Here’s a very basic question: “how did the researchers measure how much the students learned and remembered?”

Did the students take a quiz two weeks later? Did they undertake a “brain dump” the following day? How, precisely, do we know what they learned?

The answer is:

The researchers did not measure how much the students learned/remembered.

Honestly. No quiz. No brain dump. Nothing.

And yet, even though the study doesn’t measure memory or learning, it is being used to argue that handwriting enhances memory and learning.

I find this astonishing.

Instead, the study measures activity “in brain regions associated with memory and learning.”

Did you notice something?

Goalpost plausibly was: “students remember more history 2 weeks later.”

Goalpost now is: “more activity in important brain regions.”


Getting Specific

When evaluating “research-based” claims, it’s helpful to know exactly what the participants in the research did.

So, these 36 participants wrote the same fifteen words multiple times. Sometimes they wrote with a stylus on a tablet; sometimes they typed using only their right index finger. (BTW: all the participants were right handed.)

Now, this insistance on “right index finger” makes sense from a neuro-research perspective. If both “handwriters” and “keyboarders” are using one hand, then the researchers reduce lots of confounding variables.

At the same time, this emphasis also leads to highly artificial circumstances.

Presumably some people type with one finger. But, I’m guessing that most people who want to take laptop notes don’t. I suspect they want to take laptop notes because they have some degree of facility on a keyboard.


Goalpost initially was: “students remember more history 2 weeks later.”

Goalpost then was: “more activity in important brain regions.”

Goalpost now is: “more activity in important brain regions when participants write as they usually do than when they type in a really, really unnatural way.”

Double grrr.

It is, of course, helpful to know about these differences in neural responses. But I don’t think they plausibly add up to “students remember more.” Because — remember — no one measured learning.

Lest I Be Misunderstood

In such conversations, I’m often misunderstood to be confident about the right answer. That is: I might seem to be saying “I’m confident that laptops are better than handwriting for learning.”

I am NOT saying that.

Instead, I’m asking for research that directly measures the claim being made.

If I say to you: “research shows that handwriting is better for learning than laptops,” I should be able to show you research that directly measures that claim.

If, instead, I have research showing that handwriting develops neural networks that might be beneficial for learning, I should say that.

My frustration about this point stems from a broader concern.

Over and over, I find that non-teachers cite research — especially neuroscience research — to boss teachers around. While I certainly do believe that teachers should know about pertinent research findings (that’s why I write this blog!), I also believe that we need to acknowledge the limits of our research-based knowledge.

I just don’t think that research (yet) demonstrates that handwritten notes generate more learning than laptop notes.

Overall, I’m inclined to believe:

Practicing fine motor skills (by, say, handwriting) is really important for young learners.

Praticing handwriting makes us better at handwriting — and other word-related skills.

As students get older and more facile with a keyboard, the benefits of handwriting vs. keyboarding will probably depend on the student, the subject, the kind of notes being taken, etc.

And if I see more than one study directly testing the claim that handwriting helps people learn better, I’m entirely open to that possibility.

But at least so far, that claim is not — by any definition that seems reasonable to me– “research-based.”

Van der Weel, F. R., & Van der Meer, A. L. (2024). Handwriting but not typewriting leads to widespread brain connectivity: a high-density EEG study with implications for the classroom. Frontiers in Psychology14, 1219945.

tags: category: L&B Blog

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