When it Comes to Words Per Minute, Less is More

By April 5, 2016 October 20th, 2018 4 Comments

“The Power of Handwriting,” a recent Wall Street Journal article by Robert Lee Hotz, argues what many teachers already believe: that students who handwrite their notes learn better than those who type.

According to Hotz, faster note-taking does not correlate with deeper or even adequate understanding of the material. Researchers have found that “the very feature that makes laptop note-taking so appealing — the ability to take notes more quickly — was what undermined learning.”

Interestingly, digital note-taking does appear to result in short-term gains for note-takers. But after 24 hours, those who type notes start to forget the material they transcribed. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA compared the work product of students who took longhand notes and found that they retained knowledge for longer and more readily understood new concepts.

Hotz reminds us that taking notes by hand has been a key learning strategy since ancient times and tells us that “writing things down excites the brain, brain imaging studies show.” Adds Michael Friedman of Harvard, when we take notes, we actually “transform” what we hear, making information acquisition both dynamic and personal.

Any notes are better than no notes, say researchers. But teachers can attest to the greater level of focus they see in students who write down their thoughts as they listen and learn vs. those who type transcript style notes. The sharpest edge still belongs to the student who can distill and synthesize information as he/she hears it, and commit it to memory through a practice of writing notes by hand.

There is a reason we are sometimes allowed to take a handwritten notecard into an exam with us — in deciding what is essential information to have with us in the exam room, we have likely undergone a very rigorous and helpful process of separating the wheat from the chaff, and committed to long-term memory those very concepts we are most likely to be tested on.



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.


  • Rhoda says:

    Fascinating! I’d also like to know the differing effects on learning that derive from reading a book or e-reader.

    • says:

      I find that I don’t retain what I read online the way I do when I annotate a hard copy. I’m sure you feel the same!

  • Kate says:

    I have read about this – and it confirms for me why I always studied for tests by re-writing my notes. And I wonder what could be done for kids who have serious graphomotor issues, for whom we thought we found a silver bullet by getting them assistive tech for note taking … I wonder if taking few/illegible notes by hand is better than taking more verbatim notes by keyboard? Sometimes the thing we think is an assist is actually only a superficial support.

    • says:

      interesting point, Kate, and something I definitely see in my work with students. I have found that when students can talk through their notes, they can sometimes flag things for themselves, but it’s tough when the notes themselves are overwhelming because someone else put them together for the child with graphomotor.