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Lockdown has turbocharged business communications technology.  Use of Zoom for video calls rocketed 30-fold in April alone, as the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of us to work remotely.  The company reported more than 300 million daily participants in virtual meetings, with the number of paying customers more than tripling.

Online learning has also taken a quantum leap.  Many of us have found ourselves using collaborative tools such as Miro and Mosaic.  At Threshold, we’re even delivering live interactive theatre globally over Zoom.  So far, so high tech.  But a client recently told us how they actually found it more useful and effective to physically write things down when learning online rather than relying on a keyboard and a mouse.

This got us thinking and we started offering a new option in our webinars.  Participants could download a hardcopy workbook so that they engage more physically in the learning process by writing things down.  Guess what?  It’s worked amazingly well with clients telling us how they’ve digested and retained even more of what we’ve been talking to them about.

Backing up a hunch with sound psychology

At Threshold we like to back up our hunches and experience with sound psychology and so we decided to investigate the connection between learning and cursive script.   Researchers at the Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory at the Department of Psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology wanted to know whether different parts of the brain are activated when we type on a keyboard as opposed to when we draw visual images on a tablet. 

They used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to study brain electrical activity in young adults as they were typing or describing in words visually presented the game of Pictionary, either using a keyboard, or as they were drawing pictures of the same words on a tablet.

“We found that when drawing, brain areas in the parietal and occipital regions showed event related desynchronization activity in the theta/alpha range,” wrote Audrey van der Meer and fellow researcher Ruud van der Weel.  “Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning.”  They added: “We concluded that because of the benefits for sensory-motor integration and learning, traditional handwritten notes are preferably combined with visualizations (eg, small drawings, shapes, arrows, symbols) to facilitate and optimize learning.”

They suggest that sensory-motor information required for controlling a pen or pencil is picked up via the senses, and because of the involvement of these senses, they leave a wider mark on establishing pathways in the brain.  This results in neural activity that impacts on higher levels of cognitive processing and learning.

Lecture notes written in longhand are superior

This research builds on findings published in 2004 by Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer from UCLA which suggested that lecture notes written in longhand were superior to verbatim notetaking by keyboard with respect to learning outcomes.  Here, as in other studies, students who typed on laptops took more notes.  However, in each study, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding of the subject and were more successful in applying it.

As we know, writing by hand takes longer and is often less convenient, than typing.  You can’t write down every word in a lecture or meeting.  However, the evidence is that because of this, we’re more likely to listen, digest, and summarise points so that we can capture the essence of the information.  Our brains have to work harder and this extra effort improves comprehension and retention, it seems.

Encoding new information

In another experiment van der Meer and van der Weel used a high density EEG on 12 young adults and 12 children who were 12 years of age to study brain electrical activity as they were writing in cursive by hand, typewriting, or drawing visually presented words that were varying in difficulty.

“For young adults, we found that when writing by hand using a digital pen on a touchscreen, brain areas in the parietal and central regions showed event-related synchronized activity in the theta range,” they reported.  “Existing literature suggests that such oscillatory neuronal activity in these particular brain areas is important for memory and for the encoding of new information and, therefore, provides the brain with optimal conditions for learning.”

They added: “When drawing, we found similar activation patterns in the parietal areas, in addition to event-related desynchronization in the alpha/beta range, suggesting both similarities but also slight differences in activation patterns when drawing and writing by hand.”

Taking notes by hand might sound a bit old school but it’s clear that it can improve your ability to really digest and remember what you’ve been hearing and learning.

The writing is on the wall – or, better still, on a notepad.