Computers have made almost everything faster. Want to write a friend, fill up the fridge, or research any topic under the sun? These days, a few clicks and it's done. But according to research, there's at least one area where going digital might just slow you down -- learning.
A steady drumbeat of studies suggests that when it comes to retaining and processing new knowledge, if you want to speed up the process, you might want to put down your screens and reach for old-fashioned pen and paper instead.
Why the turtle wins this race.
But wait, you might object, I can type much faster than I can write by hand. How on earth could old-fashioned handwriting possibly be speedier? And you would be right. Writing by hand is slower than whacking out words on a keyboard. But when it comes to learning, slow and steady often wins the race.
Yes, pen and paper demands physical concentration, which takes more effort. But that physical effort fires up your brain in beneficial ways, studies involving brain scans of students reveal.
And that extra effort has significant real-world effects. Research has shown that students who take notes longhand remember more and generate more ideas than those who pop open their laptops during class. And writing by hand may be beneficial even if you're long out of school. "Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for Baby Boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age," reports the Wall Street Journal's Gwendolyn Bounds.
This is a fact writers themselves have long known -- as long as typing has been an option, many have sworn by the slowness of handwriting, explaining that physically forming the letters pushes them to be more creative and thoughtful.
Transcribing is not learning.
The benefits of handwriting come not only from the physical and cognitive effort involved (or the fact that pen and notebook won't distract you with kitten pictures and Facebook updates), but from the slowness of that effort, which nudges you to process information differently.
Type out your notes from a lecture and you'll likely whip along at top speed trying to copy down exactly what the professor is saying. But force yourself to go old school, and you'll have to boil down the information, summarize essential points, and be thoughtful about how you organize your notes. In short, writing by hand pushes you to chew on the information being presented rather than bolt it down whole, and that gives you a leg up when it comes to understanding the material and making it your own.
That's probably why, when scientists asked study participants to either watch TED talks armed with their laptops or with pen and paper, the longhand note takers were much better at answering deeper, more meaningful questions about the talks (such as making comparisons and sussing out cause and effect) than those who used computers to basically transcribe verbatim.
"The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective -- because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them," Princeton's Pam Mueller, a co-author of the study, explained to NPR.
Putting this science to use.
The flip side of this finding, of course, is that if you're just memorizing rapid-fire facts and figures, typing might be a better bet -- speed, in that case, trumps deep thought. But in situations where you're not just trying to shove a laundry list of data into your brain, science strongly suggests the recent mania for technology among educators and students might be misguided.
Yes, picking up pen and paper will slow you down, but paradoxically, that probably means you'll end up learning faster.