Handwriting vs computer based note-taking

More evidence and discussion this month suggesting that writing by hand is superior to taking notes on a computer. An article in the Wall Street Journal references a Princeton & UCLA study that found students who wrote their notes appeared to think more intensely about the material as they wrote and digested it more thoroughly. Laptop users on the other hand took longer notes, writing much verbatim. As one of the researchers stated 'Ironically, the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing - the ability to take notes more quickly - was what undermined learning'.

Congnitive neuroscientist Jared Horvath at The Science of Learning Research Centre in Melbourne said in The Australian newspaper article, 'We like to think that the brain is like a computer … but everything we know about how memory works suggests it’s all relational and conceptual. We don’t necessarily remember facts, we remember concepts.'

For those of us who like to have our notes on a computer for ease of access in multiple locations, this is somewhat depressing. There is always the option of handwriting and scanning. I've personally tried a range of options including direct notes into the software by which I run my life: Evernote.  I've used standard journals, note cards and Livescribe, the pen that writes in ink but automatically syncs to online storage.

The answer to this is in Dr Horvath's quote above: memory is relational and conceptual. It is exceedingly difficult to take memorable notes as pages of linear text, whether handwritten or typed. The benefit of handwritten notes are the inevitable drawings that accompany them: the doodles, words within circles, red pen underlining and arrows underscoring relationships between ideas.

Mind maps as a solution?
I do believe we can have the best of both worlds and recently I've been testing various mind map solutions. The advantage of mind mapping is that it forces you to interact with the content, to think deeply about concepts and how it all fits together.

When I read a text, I like to have a summary to come back to. Something to remind me later about the key relationships and messages. And to prompt me about the various detail and how it all fits into the bigger picture.

I recently wrote an article on the three ways that healthcare has to change, summarising some evidence on leadership and engagement. Here is the mind map summary that I created as I brought together the information, organising it into a format that allowed me to fit it into my bigger conceptual picture of how these things work. Click on the images below to see them larger, or pinch-zoom on a mobile.

After trying several different solutions, I have settled on iMindMap, developed by Tony Buzan, who is said to be the inventor of mind mapping. I've used it in various settings, e.g. whilst reading, in meetings to take summary notes of discussions, and to brainstorm ideas and help me nut out concepts I'm learning. I've used it for teaching too. The software has a few options for brainstorming or note taking on the fly, the idea being that you come back and tidy up the relationships and final layout afterwards. Once you have a map created, you can add images; visualisations with content have been found to aid long term memorisation. The software's presentation mode can be used to share ideas to an audience, focusing on one area at a time, slowly building up the bigger picture and emphasising conceptual relationships: here's an example. There's a mobile version of the software too.

Finalised mind maps can be stored as images, PDFs or printed out on paper; I have several on my wall at work to remind me of important information. It's easy to quickly review a large text that has been detailed in a mind map, prompting the memory of not only the main concepts, but keywords anchoring the detail too. 

The question is whether students in a lecture can mind map at speed on a computer, keeping up with a tutor. Generally content is available in books and via university online learning portals, so if they keep it broad & conceptual, I bet they can.

Buzan has written a book 'Use your head: unleash the power of your mind'. It covers much more than just mind mapping, and for anyone looking to improve deep learning & memory, it's a great read.

I haven't seen any research comparing mind mapping on a computer with hand written notes, but if you're looking for a way to achieve the deep learning gains of handwriting in an electronic storage solution, computer-based mind maps are definitely worth a try. Let me know how you get on if you do. A free online mind mapping tool is GoConqr - by example, here's a map I created to summarise a medical study published last year.

Either way, we should probably be advising our students that typing their notes in class isn't the best idea for learning. 


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