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How handwriting helps us learn (or, why I use handwriting instead of typing)

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I decided to start tutoring my students online, I wanted it to be as intuitive as possible. It was really important to me that my students be able to write their math out by hand, just like they would on their homework or tests.

Now, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Gwendolyn Bounds explores a new crop of research into how handwriting helps us learn.

Among the studies Bounds writes about, the one I find most interesting is one by educational psychology professor Virginia Berninger, who found that children in second, fourth, and sixth grade “wrote more words, faster, and expressed more ideas when writing essays by hand versus with a keyboard.

Berninger also “says pictures of the brain have illustrated that sequential finger movements activated massive regions involved in thinking, language, and working memory.”

The same article discusses a study at Indiana University which found that “in children who had practiced writing by hand, … [MRI] scans showed heightened brain activity in a key area…indicating learning took place.”

And Bounds also covers a study, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, which found that adults benefit from writing by hand when learning mathematical (or other) symbol systems: “for those writing by hand, there was stronger and longer-lasting recognition of the characters’ proper orientation, suggesting that the specific movements memorized when learning how to write aided the visual identification of the graphic shapes.”

Another article by Heather Horn in the Atlantic Wire points out that “scientists are finally beginning to explore what writers have long suspected,” and then goes on to quote a 1985 Paris Review interview with novelist Robert Stone, who, when asked if he mostly types, responds:

“Yes, until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or a word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed—you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity.

While most of these studies examine the process of writing words as opposed to mathematical symbols, they seem to reinforce another study which found that solving algebra problems by hand as opposed to typing them out allowed students to solve problems twice as quickly and seemed to be a more efficient learning modality.

While I wasn’t aware of this research when I decided to use technology that lets students write their math by hand, it’s gratifying to learn more about how writing by hand can make learning faster, deeper, and more effective.

Thanks to Laura Grace Weldon of Free Range Learning for bringing this research to my attention!

Related Links:
My online tutoring technology (4): why I use handwriting instead of typing
Is multi-sensory learning hardwired into our humanity?
Mind meld is real!
Why sleep is awesome #3

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