• Robb G. Best

Want to Learn More? Pick Up a Pen

When you're learning new information and you want to remember it, you might be tempted to reach for your keyboard or your phone. However, research suggests both children and adults learn better and retain noticeably more when we write by hand.

Professor Audrey Van der Meer and her colleagues at NTNU have performed several studies investigating this phenomenon, starting in 2017 when she examined the brain activity of 20 students and continuing now in 2020 when she looked at the brain activity of twelve children and young adults, marking the first time children have been included in such a study.

The studies used an EEG to track and record brainwave activity, and the participants wore a hood with 250 very sensitive electrodes attached to it. Each participant was given a 45 minute examination, and the researchers received 500 data points per second.

The results? In both young adults and children, the brain is much more active writing by hand with a pen or pencil than when typing on a computer or device. While the sample sizes of both studies were small, van der Meer is convinced the results are still worth talking about.

“The use of pen and paper gives the brain more ‘hooks’ to hang your memories on," says Van der Meer. "Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better."

This report coincides with a period when all of us are increasing on computers and devices, and away from pen and paper. A survey of 19 countries in the EU shows that Norwegian children between 9 and 16 spend double the amount of time online that they did ten years ago. Then, of course, there's the issue of schools during the pandemic increasingly relying on distanced digital learning. While Van der Meer thinks that digital learning has many positive aspects, she maintains that handwriting training should be part of the curriculum.

“Given the development of the last several years, we risk having one or more generations lose the ability to write by hand. Our research and that of others show that this would be a very unfortunate consequence” of our increasing digital activity, says Van der Meer.

For now, it's something to think about the next time you find yourself taking notes on a digital device: to really activate your brain, consider grabbing a pad of paper instead.

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