Art Carden  

Should You Take Notes By Hand and Read Paper Books?

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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.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Thomas Sewell writes:
"what will we *not* teach so that we can teach cursive writing"
If you're going to select subjects for elementary school to discard teaching, cursive wouldn't be the first one on my list. At least there is some research out there showing it linked to thinking processes and it's a legitimate academic subject.

Vast amounts of time are wasted on "progressive" topics, holiday "cultural" celebrations, etc... which teachers are so used to spending time on, my experience is, that even if you explicitly remove any connection to them in the school's official curriculum from the beginning of the school's existence, they'll still waste hours each day of class time on them.

Ryan Schmidgall writes:

This reminds me of a time back in high school when, in a chemistry class, I instructed to memorize the periodic table of the elements. I questioned why I should memorize something we should all have access to while in class versus trying to remember more conceptual things about chemistry. To my dismay, I was told I needed to "quit being difficult" and do as I was told. I was surprised, as I all I wanted to do was spend my time on more valuable tasks in class.

Tom DeMeo writes:

I would argue that Mr. West has a faulty model of what we are doing when we learn in school.

With the exception of a few core skills we all need, such as the ability to read and comprehend, add and subtract, etc...the particular topics we study are of limited importance. The primary value is to repeatedly practice the process of acquiring some level of mastery over a skill or topic.

The most important thing is to build up the skills used to figure out how to do and learn things. We will forget most of what we learn. It also is sketchy business anticipating what a third grader will have to know 30 years from now. Arguing over which topics are highly relevant to our futures is mostly a waste of time.

RPLong writes:

Regarding hand-written classnotes, it's much easier to type EVERYTHING than it is to write EVERYTHING. So when I take written notes, it causes me to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of material that ought to be remembered. I'm hearing it, I'm thinking about its importance or significance, I'm writing it down, and then if necessary I'm adding a blurb of my own thoughts to follow-up on later.

But when I type out notes, my tendency is to type everything because I type 85 wpm or faster. The cost of an additional note is very low, so why not type it out? Then I go back to it later and discover that I have so much written down that I don't know what is and isn't important.

Tom West writes:

I really like the term "corner solution parenting" and the post you referenced.

I remember well the arguments with my MiL about letting my 12-year old son ride public transit to school on his own.

The phrase "If anything bad happens to him, you will have to live with the fact that you *let* it happen for the rest of your life." was bandied about for than once.

My only reply was she was right. But it was a risk that I felt had to be taken to allow my son become an independent human being. To give in to my fear for myself would be doing my son a grave disservice.

Luckily, she worked hard not to share her fears with my son (who's an overly cautious sort by nature).

Brad Warbiany writes:

One point. You say:

"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."

I agree with you as it relates to simple facts that are easily looked up. However, very little of the note-taking I do in my professional life has to do with simple publicly-known and easily catalogued facts.

For example, yesterday I met with a company that my employer will do some co-marketing with at an upcoming tradeshow to introduce a new product. I need to relay information from that meeting to our marketing department so they can act on it.

I took notes, because that information can't be looked up anywhere. And if I waited until I got to the office to summarize, I'd invariably leave something out that I meant to cover.

Those sorts of notes are highly important. They allow for recall of small non-searchable details that make analytical decision-making much more productive.

Scott Campbell writes:

Livescribe sells a Smartpen and special paper which enables the user to take written notes as the pen records the lecture.

The recording is keyed to the notes which allow the student to hear the associated lecture after the class by touching the written note with the pen to start the playback. This allows the student to jot ideas down while the lecture is being recorded so that they can think and react without having to either not write down the thought or not hear that portion of the lecture.

The paper allows notes and drawings to be digitized for viewing on a computer. The hand written note can be turned into text automatically. The lecture and notes can be emailed.

This does not answer the question about cursive writing but it does answer the question should note taking be a part of a students education and the answer is yes.

Tom West writes:

Tom DeMeo

I'd agree that a lot of information gets lost over time. But if my own experience is any guide, I don't forget that I used to know it.

This means that I have a big advantage over those that never knew it in the first place, because I know that it exists to be looked up.

I'd never have looked up the Saxon kings of England or what is formic acid as an adult if I hadn't once been taught them as a grade-schooler.

Hence what I learned and have forgotten in grade 3 is not entirely irrelevant.

patrick k writes:

Every trader knows if you update your daily charts by hand vs looking at a computer screen at the end of the day you have a much better "feel" for what the market is actually doing.

JKB writes:

The best explanation of note taking, I've found, was in this old Freshman Rhetoric text book from 1913. It isn't some brilliant but esoteric method, but it does spend a lot of time helping the student learn how to extract and organize the relevant bits. A topic often mentioned but rarely adequately instructed. It is training that should be started at about 3rd grade with careful graduated exercises so that the process is completely subconscious.

Coupled with the factors of study from F.M. McMurry's 'How to Study and Teaching How to Study', it is easy to see how good note taking is critical to study. Not as a reminder but as an exercise that demands interaction with and thought about the material by satisfying factors 3 and 4.

The factors of studying:
1. Provision for Specific Purposes
2. The Supplementing of Thought
3. The Organization of Ideas
4. Judging the Soundness and General Worth of Statements
5. Memorizing
6. The Using of Ideas
7. Provision for a Tentative rather than a Fixed Attitude toward Knowledge
8. Provision for Individuality

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