Handwriting vs. Typing: How to Choose the Best Method to Take Notes

Writing notes by hand versus typing them up on a laptop.


A common question people ask is whether you should write notes by hand or type them up on the computer. In short, studies generally show that writing notes by hand allows you to remember the material better than typing it. However, when it comes to actually choosing which method you should use, the answer is more complicated than that.


The following post will show you:

  • How each method affects the way you remember the material.
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each method.
  • How you can counteract some of the disadvantages.
  • How to decide which method is best for you.


Note-taking and your memory

As previously stated, taking notes by hand generally allows you to remember the material better. This has been shown in a number of studies, ranging from more abstracts studies examining memory in general, to those examining specific note-taking methods in classes:

In the case of taking notes in lectures, the main issue with typing is that people are more predisposed to engage in verbatim note-taking when they type, as opposed to when they write the notes by hand. This means that they just type whatever the speaker/lecturer says, and this type of note-taking involves relatively shallow cognitive processing of the material. In comparison, writing down the material by hand usually involves a more in-depth processing of the material, where you don’t just write everything the speaker says word-for-word.

Being aware of this issue might allow you to take better notes while typing, as long as you focus on how to summarize and rephrase the material, instead of just typing it verbatim. However, you need to be aware of your abilities, and honest with yourself regarding whether you can actually do that successfully. Testing shows that in most cases, telling students to avoid taking verbatim notes when typing doesn’t actually lead to an improvement in their note-taking.


Important factors to considers

Conceptual versus factual testing

The way in which you’re expected to interact with the material matters, and there is a difference between conceptual and factual learning. In the case of conceptual learning you’re expected to reach a thorough understanding of the material, as opposed to factual learning, where you’re mostly expected to know specific details. The advantages of taking notes by hand are more significant in the case of conceptual learning, and are less notable in the case of factual learning.


Access and distractions

When you type, you have access to a lot of other tools on your computer. This can be either beneficial or detrimental to your learning.

The benefits: you can look things up during the lecture, find clarifications to questions you might have, and use material the lecturer provides.

The disadvantages: you have a lot more distractions available. Don’t underestimate the negative impact that this can have on you: multitasking on your laptop during lectures has been shown to significantly hinder students’ learning ability. However, you can try and mitigate this in various ways, such as by blocking your access to sites/programs which you know are a distraction for you.


Length and type of text

Writing by hand tends to make you more succinct, as people can generally type text more quickly than they can write it. This can be an advantage, since it means you only include the more important details in your notes. However, if you are forced to be so brief that you omit minor-but-necessary details, this can become an issue. Typing allows you to write all of these details, but the disadvantage of writing too much is that you might end up drowning in unnecessary details, which makes it more difficult to study. Therefore, decide if you benefit more from being brief, or from including all the details. This also has to do with how you’re expected to know the material (i.e. conceptual vs. factual understanding), as we previously saw.

In addition, keep in mind that:


Preferences and study technique

Sometimes you may not feel comfortable writing by hand, because it’s too slow for you, or because you’re not familiar enough with the material to process it during the lecture. If you rely on going over the material after the lecture, it can be beneficial to produce more accurate notes by typing, even if it comes at the cost of not understanding the material as much as you’re writing it.


Practical benefits of digital notes

There are a few advantages to typing your notes which are not directly related to your memorization ability, but are still important to consider:

  • Digital notes are easier to edit and fix.
  • Digital notes are easier to search through.
  • Digital notes are more reliable, especially if you back them up appropriately (i.e. there’s no chance of forgetting your notebook somewhere and losing a year’s worth of notes).
  • Digital notes are easier to share (though some people may consider this to be a disadvantage).


Finding what works for you

As always, there are tons of variables which can effect which choice is best for you. Try things out for yourself and find our which method you prefer. Keep in mind that different methods might be better in different situations. This depends both on the nature of the material, as well as on your end goal for the notes.

Overall, you can generally use the following guidelines to decide which method to use:

  • Taking notes by hand works best when you want to fully process the material as you’re writing it down. It’s especially helpful when you’re expected to achieve a conceptual understanding of the material, and when the material you need to write down isn’t convenient to type up on a computer. The main issue with writing things by hand is that it’s relatively slow, so it can be problematic if you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the speaker.
  • Typing your notes works best if there is a lot of material you need to write down, and writing by hand isn’t convenient or fast enough. You tend to process the material less as you’re typing it, especially if you end up just typing everything verbatim, so you will probably have to rely more on going over the material after you finish taking the notes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are situations where you might care more about having higher-quality notes that you can peruse at a later date. Other advantages of digital notes are that they’re simpler to edit/fix, easier to search through, and are more reliable in terms of backups. However, working on a digital device (as opposed to writing things down in a notebook) opens you up to more distractions, which can be detrimental to your learning if you’re not careful.


Summary and conclusions

  • Writing notes by hand generally improves your understanding of the material, as it involves deeper cognitive processing than typing them.
  • The main issue with typing is that it causes people to copy the material verbatim, exactly as presented by the speaker, which means that they don’t process the material as much. This is difficult to avoid even if you’re aware of the issue.
  • Both writing notes by hand and typing them are valid strategies, and each can be preferable in different situations, as they both have their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Writing by hand is better if you need to process the material as you’re writing it, and especially if you’re expected to have conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding).
  • Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, and if you’re planning to go over the material again later. It has the added bonus of making the text easier to edit and search through. However, it also opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.


The Power of Mental Practice

The power of mental practice.


It doesn’t matter what skill you’re trying to improve; if you want to get better, you have to practice. However, you don’t always have to be fully engaged if you want to get that practice done. Rather, research shows that mental practice, or going through the necessary motions in your head, can help you achieve significant progress in skills that you’re trying to get better at.

In the following article you will see why this method works, and understand how to take advantage of it in order to improve your skills.


Evidence for the benefits of mental practice

Mental practice (sometimes referred to as motor imagery), has been shown to be effective in a wide range of situations:

  • A study which examined golfers showed that those who combined physical practice together with mental practice (where they went through the motions of golf in their head), performed better than golfers who only underwent physical practice, even though both groups spent the same amount of time practicing overall.
  • A study on musicians found that mentally-practicing new musical pieces helped pianists learn which notes they need to play.
  • A study looking at surgeons showed that mental practice before surgery helped surgeons improve their technical ability and enhance their performance.
  • A study which examined recovery after a stroke found that mental practice helped patients regain movement in limbs that they lost control of.


Why mental practice works

When you want to get better in a certain skill, you practice. While only going through the motions in your head isn’t completely the same thing as going through them in reality, there is a lot of cognitive similarity in terms of how your brain interprets the two forms of practice.

A lot of the evidence on this comes from studies on the neurological functions of musicians:

  • An fMRI study of music-academy students who play the piano, showed that there is significant activation in related areas in the brain during both music performance as well as during mental imagery of the performance. However, certain key areas related to motor execution were only activated during actual performance, and not during mental practice.
  • Another fMRI study, which examined amateur and professional violinists, also showed that brain activations were similar, but not entirely identical, during actual performance of music and during mental practice.


How to utilize mental practice in your training

Odds are that you already used mental practice in various forms throughout your life. Doing it is pretty intuitive: any time you go through the motions of a necessary action in your head, you’re mentally-practicing that skill, even if you aren’t fully aware of it.

However, you can get better results from choosing to utilize mental practice in a more purposeful way. That is, instead of using it haphazardly, try to dedicate time specifically to taking advantage of this technique, just as you would dedicate time to regular practice.

However, it’s also important to remember that mental practice can’t replace actual performance entirely. Rather, it’s intended to complement it. Therefore, the best thing to do is to take advantage of mental practice during times you could not otherwise practice. For example, you could:

  • Engage in mental practice when you are injured, and therefore can’t perform the physical action. Interestingly, mental practice can not only help you improve your skills in such cases, but also retain your physical abilities. This was shown by a study which found that mental visualization of physical exertion (i.e. imagining that you are lifting a heavy object), helped reduce strength loss after short-term muscle immobilization. Even more interestingly, the study also found that imagining that you are lifting a “heavy object” results in more muscle response than imagining that you are lifting a “lighter object”.
  • Conduct some mental practice right before the real performance, in order to envision the specific actions you will take. As we saw earlier for example, surgeons significantly benefited from conducting mental practice before performing a surgery.
  • Use mental practice during “dead times”, when you wouldn’t otherwise do anything productive. This refers to time spent in activities such as riding the bus or waiting in line. Instead of letting that time go to waste, you can now put it to a good use, without needing anything to practice with.
  • You can also go through mental practice as you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep. This is especially helpful if you tend to take a long time to fall asleep. However, if you see that doing this ends up making it harder for your to fall asleep, you should probably avoid it.


The effects of experience level

A review paper showed that experienced people tend to benefit more from mentally-practicing their skills, in comparison with novices, and that this effect is more notable when it comes to practicing physical tasks. The researchers suggest that this occurs because novices are often not familiar enough with the task that they want to practice in order to construct an accurate mental representation of it, an idea supported in other papers on the topic.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try using mental practice as a beginner, but it does mean that you should be wary and make sure that you’re familiar enough with the skill you’re visualizing in order to practice it effectively. Most importantly, make sure that you’re going through the correct motions in your head, in order to avoid instilling bad habits. 

In addition, if you’re a beginner and you find that mental practice isn’t helping you, this could be the reason why. If you suspect that this is the issue, consider waiting with mental practice for a while, and coming back to it when you’re more experienced.


Summary and conclusions

  • Mental practice, or going through the motions of a certain action in your head, can help you improve in various skills.
  • This method is currently used by professionals in a wide range of fields: from musicians, to surgeons, to sports players, and more.
  • Mental practice works because the brain treats actions that you visualize similarly to actions that you fully perform, though there of course are some neurological differences between the two.
  • You can use mental practice to complement your main training, or as a substitute when you can’t perform the full movements (if you are injured, for example).
  • In general, the more experienced you are, the more you will benefit from using this technique, as novices sometimes struggle to mentally-practice actions that they are not familiar enough with.


“The horse raced past the barn fell”: Avoid Garden Path Sentences in Your Writing

Garden path sentences


When you read a garden path sentence, you start by initially assuming a certain interpretation for the sentence. However, as you continue reading, you suddenly realize that the original interpretation isn’t possible, which causes you to get stuck. You then have to process the sentence again, before you can finally derive its correct meaning.

For example, let’s look at the sentence in the title of this post: “the horse raced past the barn fell”. When you started reading it, you probably assumed that the verb “raced” is active, rather than passive, as it usually is. However, once you got to “fell”, you realized (intuitively) that your initial interpretation doesn’t make sense for some reason (because if “raced” is active, then “fell” doesn’t have a subject). You then had to reprocess the sentence, before you were able to reach the correct interpretation, where the verb “raced” is passive. This annoying reanalysis is the result of a garden path structure, which sometimes appears in people’s writing.

The following article will show you where garden path sentences occur, why it’s important to avoid them, and how to identify and fix them in your writing.


The nature of garden path sentences

The name of this phenomenon comes from the saying “to lead someone down the garden path”, which means to mislead or deceive someone. Garden path sentences can appear in a variety of situations, as in the following examples:

  • Without her contributions would be impossible.
  • The old man the boat.
  • I convinced her children are noisy.
  • The girl told the story cried.

All of these sentences contain an initial ambiguity, where a certain word or group of words can be interpreted in more than one way. Since readers attempt to understand the sentence as they are reading it, they will pick an initial interpretation for the sentence, which later on turns out to be incorrect. Once they realize that the initial interpretation doesn’t work, they become confused trying to make sense of what they’re reading.

Consider the following example:

  • After Bill drank the water proved to be poisoned.

Odds are that when you read the sentence, you first analyzed “the water” as the object of “drank”, meaning that Bill drank the water. However, once you reached the verb “proved”, your brain realized that the initial interpretation of the sentence doesn’t make sense (because there would be no subject for “proved”). This lead you to reanalyze the sentence, so that “after Bill drank” became an adjunct of “the water proved to be poisoned”.

Of course, all of this linguistic processing was performed mostly at a subconscious level. That is, you knew that you got stuck reading the sentence, but you didn’t really know why it happened, or how your brain eventually managed to fix the issue.

Interestingly, your brain sometimes goes further in an attempt to resolve resolve garden-path ambiguities, and performs something called good-enough parsing. When this happens, your brain intentionally misinterprets the text, and goes with the initial, incorrect meaning for the sentence, while ignoring the material that leads to the reanalysis. This subconscious process saves you the trouble of getting completely stuck trying to figure out what the sentence actually means, at the expensive cost of making you misunderstand what the sentence actually means, while still slowing down your reading.

I won’t go into the mechanisms behind the linguistic processing involved, since it’s complicated, technical, and still not fully understood by researchers. However, a discussion of these mechanisms isn’t necessary for the intuitive understanding of how these sentences occur, and how they affect you. If you want to dive into the research literature yourself, here are a few relevant research papers on the topic, in addition to those linked so far in the article:


Identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing

Because these sentences are so difficult for readers to process, it’s important to ensure that they don’t occur in your writing. Otherwise, you risk confusing your audience, and ruining the flow of the text.

Since garden path sentences can occur in a variety of situations, there is no single formula which can be used to identify and fix them. However, since these sentences all share similar characteristics, there is a simple process that you can follow in order to ensure that they don’t appear in your writing.


Identifying garden path sentences

Identifying garden path sentences is an intuitive process. Essentially, as you read through the text, try and find places where you get completely stuck when interpreting a sentence, because you find yourself having to “restart” the processing halfway through. Then, read carefully through it to see if it seems like the “restart” is a result of an ambiguity, as described here.

If it is, then it’s likely a garden path sentence, and the next section will show you a few simple ways to resolve the ambiguity. If it’s not, odds are you should still fix it, since this is indicative of a problem in the text. However, in the latter case, the solutions suggested below may not help, as they’re intended specifically for solving ambiguities.

(Note that it can sometimes be difficult to find problematic sentences in your writing if you’ve already spent a lot of time working on the text, since your brain might perform a sort of “autocorrect” on material that you’re already familiar with. This post contains some helpful tips on how to proofread your texts in these cases.)


Fixing garden path sentences

Fixing garden path sentences is, like finding them, also fairly intuitive. Again, since there are many different variants of these sentences, there are also many ways to fix them. However, all methods revolve around the same key concept: you need to remove the ambiguity which creates the issue in the first place. Fortunately, are a few simple ways to do this, without having to rephrase the whole thing.

First, you can add a comma in an appropriate location. For example, instead of:

  • Without her contributions would be impossible.

You can write:

  • Without her, contributions would be impossible.

You could also add a complementizer in an appropriate location. These are words such as which, that, or who, that are used in order to introduce an embedded clause within a sentence. For example, instead of:

  • I convinced her children are noisy.


  • I convinced her that children are noisy.

And instead of:

  • Ann warned her friends were unreliable.


  • Ann warned that her friends were unreliable.

Sometimes you will also need to include further minor modifications, such as adding an auxiliary verb (e.g. was). For examples, instead of:

  • The horse raced past the barn fell.

You would write:

  • The horse which was raced past the barn fell.

As you can see, despite the grammar-related terminology used in the explanation, identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing is a pretty straightforward and intuitive process. This is also why these sentences almost never appear in speech: when we talk, we generally employ intonational cues and use more conventional structures, both of which prevent these ambiguities from occurring in the first place.


Summary and conclusions

  • A garden path sentence is a sentence which contains an ambiguity that leads the reader to initially assume an incorrect interpretation for the sentence, as they’re reading it.
  • For example, in “the horse raced past the barn fell”, the reader initially assumes that “raced” is an active verb. Once the reader reaches “fell”, they realize that “raced” must be passive, otherwise “fell” wouldn’t have a subject, and the sentences would be ungrammatical.
  • This reanalysis is cognitively-difficult to perform, and greatly interrupts the reading process.
  • Identifying these sentences in your writing is an intuitive process; try to find places where you get stuck when interpreting a sentence, because you find yourself having to “restart” the processing halfway through due to an initial ambiguity.
  • Fixing these sentences is also simple and intuitive; the most common methods involve inserting a necessary comma or a complementizer (e.g. that, which, who), in order to resolve the problematic ambiguity.