Better learning through handwriting

One of the points I mention in my book on notetaking is that the very act of taking notes helps us remember — it’s not simply about providing yourself with a record. There are a number of reasons for this, but a recent study bears on one of them. The researchers were interested in whether physically writing by hand has a different effect than typing on a keyboard.

In a fascinating experiment, adults were asked to learn to write in an unknown alphabet, with around twenty letters. One group was taught to write by hand, while another group used a keyboard. Participants were tested on their fluency and recall after three and six weeks. Those who had learned the letters by handwriting were significantly better on all tests. Moreover, Broca's area, a brain region involved in language, was active when this group were recognizing the letters, but not among those who had learned by typing on a keyboard.

The findings point to the importance of sensorimotor processes in processes we have typically regarded as primarily intellectual.

I recently reported on another finding concerning handwriting — that the memory-blocking effect of exam anxiety could be overcome by the simple strategy of writing out your anxieties just before the exam. It’s also interesting in this context to remember the research into the benefits of gesturing for reducing the load on your working memory, with consequent assistance for memory, learning and comprehension. The writing effect on exam anxiety is also thought to be related to reducing the load on working memory.

In the case of this latest study, it seems likely that the benefits have more to do with the increased focus on the shape of the letters that occurs when writing by hand, and with the intimate connection between reading and writing.

But the message of these different studies is the same: that we ignore the physical at our peril; that cognition is “embodied cognition”, rooted in our bodies in ways we are only beginning to understand.


Mangen, A. & Velay, J. (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, Advances in Haptics, Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), InTech, Press release at