Study shows handwriting better than typing for learning, memory

Medical Watch

Experts said the good old fashioned method of communication, writing, actually enhances brain power.

Now, doctors are warning more digital keyboard use could be handcuffing neural signals.

Whether print or cursive, it was taught in school and meticulously checked by teachers. The form of each letter, whether it hit the solid or dotted line.

These were skills critical to academics decades ago, pencil in hand. It’s still a skill younger students learn.

“we try to focus on correct letter formation so having those handwriting lines for our younger students,” said Lurie Children’s teacher Katie Vautier. “Starting at the top, how to form the letter properly and sometimes it’s not their favorite thing to do.”

But now, tapping keys has replaced nimble writing fingers by middle school. Long term grades for brain power may be suffering.

“We fear that we’re not challenging the brain to do what it’s good at, mainly controlling intricate hand movements for producing drawings and letter on paper” said Norwegian University professor Audrey Van Der Meer.

Study participants wore a hood with more than 250 electrodes attached. Researchers used EEG to track their brainwave activity first in 2017 in adults, then in 2020 in children.

The results were the same, showing handwriting over keyboard use is better for learning and memory.

“You open up the brain for learning and remembering things better,” professor Van Der Meer said. “So the physical movements of producing letters on paper make your brain in a kind of state that makes it much easier to remember what you’ve been hearing.”

For 45 minutes, scientists examined 500 data points per second per study participant. To a person, they were more active while handwriting.

“When you use a keyboard, it’s the same little movement for every letter that you produce,” said professor Van Der Meer. “Whereas if you write by hand it’s completely different movements involved and the senses are much more involved.”

It’s not just the visual aid and tangible act of writing, it’s the sound as well.

“I think it helps memory a lot they are putting pencil to paper so they are getting that motion,” said Lurie Children’s teacher Scott Zagalak. “It helps activate some of their fine motor skills along with their sensory motor skills, so they are creating those memories with each sort of movement of the pencil is activating their brain more than just typing on a keyboard.”

But writing is a slow process and some are more adept than others. So, some experts said typing levels the playing field and helps kids write more at a younger age. Acknowledging the benefits, researchers said we need to teach both handwriting and keyboard use for the best brain scenario for adults and children.

“So we feel children parallel to getting digital education should not skip that important phase of learning to write by hand because it’s so important for the brain’s development,” professor Van Der Meer said.

The teachers we spoke with say, with all the digital use, they are noticing a significant decrease in spelling and grammar skills due to autocorrect.

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