How can handwriting improve learning in the digital era? 

The ongoing debate surrounding the use of computers and handwriting in education is explored in the article by the Economist. Parents, as well as university professors, raise concerns about the distractions caused by laptops in classrooms. Professors report students reading and messaging instead of actively listening to lectures, which hampers the learning process.

To address this issue, the article presents research showing the benefits of a time-honoured innovation: handwriting. Studies have shown that writing on paper can enhance various aspects of learning, from improving the recall of random word sequences to fostering a better understanding of complex ideas.

When it comes to learning material through memorisation, such as letters and spelling, using a pen or pencil provides benefits because the motor and sensory memory involved in writing reinforce the information. The visual memory of the arrangement of words on a page also aids in recalling information. For example, students may remember a word they wrote down in French class as being located at the bottom-left of a page.

A 2014 study by Pam Mueller and Danny Oppenheimer demonstrates one of the most compelling advantages of handwriting: superior note-taking. The study found that students who typed their notes produced almost twice as many words and tended to copy passages verbatim, implying a lack of comprehension. However, when students took notes by hand, they synthesized ideas into their own words, which enhanced their conceptual understanding at the moment of writing. Moreover, those who took notes by hand performed better on tests when studying from handwritten notes, even when the students who typed were explicitly instructed to rephrase the material. The researchers concluded that the instruction to rephrase the material was “completely ineffective” at reducing verbatim note-taking, suggesting that students who typed did not truly comprehend the information but rather parroted it.

Numerous studies have validated the benefits of handwriting, leading policymakers to take note of its importance. In the United States, although the “Common Core” curriculum does not require handwriting instruction beyond the first grade, approximately half the states have implemented additional teaching of handwriting due to the campaigning efforts of researchers and handwriting supporters. Sweden is also pushing for more handwriting and printed books in schools. At the same time, the national curriculum in England already mandates teaching the basics of cursive writing by the age of seven.

While some school systems in America have banned most laptops, the article argues against such a drastic measure. It acknowledges that some students have disabilities that make handwriting particularly challenging, and typing skills will be essential for most individuals in the long run.

Virginia Berninger, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is a longtime advocate of handwriting. She argues that there are research-tested benefits in various forms of writing, including manuscript, cursive, and typing. As students spend more time on electronic devices as they age, she suggests occasional “tuning up” of handwriting skills in later school years.