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 a 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.

Choosing which method you should use to take notes is important, because by picking the method that’s better for you, you can improve your ability to learn the material, without requiring any additional effort on your part. Furthermore, using the right note-taking method can also be beneficial for your note-taking ability in general, even if you the reason why you take notes doesn’t have to do with learning.

Accordingly, in the following article you will see 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 of each method, and how to decide which note-taking method is best for you.

 

Note-taking and your memory

In general, research shows that taking notes by hand generally allows you to remember the material better than typing them on a computer. This has been shown in a number of studies on the topic, ranging from those which examined memory in general, to those which examined note-taking methods in a classroom setting. For example:

In the case of taking notes during lectures, the main issue with typing is that people are more predisposed to engage in verbatim note-taking when they type, in comparison with when they write their notes by hand. This means that when using a laptop, people tend to just type whatever the speaker or lecturer says, in a way that involves a 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, since people tend to give more consideration to which parts of the material they should write down, as opposed to just transcribing 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 transcribing it verbatim. However, you need to be aware of your abilities, and honest with yourself regarding whether you can actually do this successfully.

This is because 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 ability. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to improve if you actively work on how you take notes, especially if you dedicate yourself to it in the long-term, but it does mean that you should be wary, and honestly ask yourself whether taking notes on a computer is hindering your learning.

 

Factors to consider when deciding how to take notes

Conceptual versus factual learning

The way in which you’re expected to interact with the material that you’re learning matters when choosing which note-taking method to use.

Specifically, you should consider whether you’re expected to engage in conceptual learning, meaning that you’re expected to reach a thorough understanding of the underlying concepts in the material, or where you’re expected to engage in factual learning, meaning that you’re primarily expected to memorize specific details in the material.

The advantages of taking notes by hand are more significant in the case of conceptual learning, since it requires a deeper processing of the material compared to factual learning, which only necessitates a shallow interaction with the material.

Accordingly, if you’re taking notes for a subject which requires conceptual understanding of the material, then you should be more predisposed to taking notes by hand, as opposed to typing them on a computer. Conversely, if you’re taking notes for a subject which requires factual understanding of the material, then you should be less concerned with the cognitive benefits of writing notes by hand.

 

Access and distractions

Choosing to type your notes means that you end up working primarily using your computer, which gives you access to a lot of tools while you take notes. This can be either beneficial or detrimental to your learning.

The advantage of having access to such tools while you take notes is that you can look things up during the lecture if the speaker is unclear, or if you want to examine supplemental material.

The disadvantage of having access to more tools while typing notes on your computer is that you also have access to a lot more distractions. This can be detrimental to your learning, since multitasking on your laptop during lectures has been shown to significantly hinder students’ learning.

You can try and mitigate the issues which are associated with working on your computer in various ways, such as by blocking your access to sites or programs which you know might distract you, but this doesn’t always work.

At the same time however, keep in mind that writing notes by hand doesn’t mean that you don’t have access to any distractions. For example, if you tend to constantly check your phone when you’re not on your computer, then you might encounter similar issues when taking notes by hand as you would when typing them on a computer.

Overall, this means that you need to be self-aware and reflective when thinking which note-taking platform will you to concentrate better. Furthermore, regardless of which platform you end up choosing, you should make sure to minimize outside distractions as much as possible, whenever those distractions hinder your ability to learn.

 

Length and type of text

Writing notes by hand tends to make you more succinct, since people can generally type faster than they can write. This can be an advantage, since it means that you only include the more important aspects of the material in your notes. However, if you are forced to be so brief that you omit details that are more minor but still necessary, then this brevity can become an issue.

In comparison with writing notes by hand, typing notes allows you to write down more details, but the disadvantage of writing too much is that you might end up drowning in unnecessary details, which could make it more difficult to study from those notes later on.

Therefore, you should decide whether you will benefit more from being brief and concise, or from covering all the details which are mentioned during the lecture. 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:

  • Certain topics might be faster to write by hand (for example, if there are a lot of formulas involved).
  • If necessary, you can generally increase your handwriting speed or your typing speed using a few small modifications.

 

Preferences and study technique

Sometimes you may not feel comfortable writing notes by hand, because you feel that that method is too slow for you, or because you’re not familiar enough with the material in order to process it during the lecture. In such cases, typing the notes might be a preferable option to writing them down by hand.

Similarly, if you rely on going over the material after the lecture in order to learn it, whether a few days later when you’re doing homework or months later right before an exam, then it can be beneficial to produce more comprehensive notes by typing, even if it comes at the cost of not processing the material as much as when you’re writing them by hand.

 

Practical benefits of digital notes

There are a few advantages to typing your notes on a computer as opposed to writing them by hand, which are not directly related to your memory and learning ability, but which 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 (e.g. 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).

These are all things which don’t directly influence your learning ability, but which you should still take into account when deciding whether to write notes by hand or type them on a computer.

 

Figuring out what works for you

As with any similar decision, there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to choosing which method is best for you, so it’s impossible to say that one note-taking method will work better for everyone in 100% of cases.

Furthermore, different methods might work better in different scenarios, and this depends both on the nature of the material that you need to remember of learning, as well as on the way you will utilize your notes later on.

Accordingly, when deciding how to take notes, you should try things out for yourself and find out which method works better for you. Nevertheless, the following guidelines help you figure out which note-taking method will generally be preferable in which case:

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, when you need to focus on the most important aspects 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, which can be problematic if you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the speaker, or if you end up being so concise that you omit critical information.

Typing your notes works best if there is a lot of material that you need to write down, and taking notes 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 transcribing 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, and depends on your overall study technique.

Other advantages of digital notes are that they’re easier to edit and fix, easier to search through, and are more reliable in terms of backups. However, working on a digital device could potentially open you up to more distractions, which is detrimental to your learning if you’re not careful.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Writing notes by hand generally improves your understanding of the material and helps you remember it better, since writing it down involves deeper cognitive-processing of the material than typing it.
  • The main issue with typing is that it encourages people to transcribe 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 in advance.
  • Despite the fact that typing notes on a computer doesn’t promote as much cognitive processing of the material, both writing notes by hand and typing them are valid note-taking methods, 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 reach a conceptual understanding of the material (as opposed to factual understanding). The main issue with writing is that if you can’t write fast enough you might not be able to keep up with the speaker, which might cause you to omit critical information.
  • Typing notes is better if you need to write a lot, or if you’re planning to go over the material again later. It also has the added bonus of making the text easier to edit and search through, though the use of a computer potentially opens you up to more distractions, which you should take care to avoid.

 


Mental Practice: What It Is and How You Can Use It

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, there is more than one way to practice effectively. Research shows that mental practice, which is the act of going through specific motions in your head, can help you achieve significant progress in skills that you’re trying to improve.

In the following article, you will see some evidence for the benefits of mental practice, learn why it works, and understand how you can use it in order to improve your performance in various domains.

 

What is mental practice

Mental practice (which is sometimes referred to as motor imagery) is the act of visualizing certain actions in your head, in order to help you prepare for when you have to perform them in reality. For example, in order to learn how to perform certain moves in your favorite sport, you can rehearse these moves mentally, by visualizing yourself performing them.

Common examples of mental practice include:

  • Imagining the steps that you will go through when giving a public speech.
  • Going over the moves for a dance routine in your head.
  • Visualizing how you’re going to act during an important future meeting.

Beyond these examples, there are numerous other ways in which you can use mental practice, since it can be applied in almost any area of life, including in sports, social interactions, and any other domain in which you can improve your performance by visualizing it in your head.

 

The benefits of mental practice

Mental practice 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 which looked at musicians found that mentally practicing new musical pieces helped pianists learn which notes they need to play.
  • A study which examined surgeons showed that mental practice before surgery helped surgeons improve their technical ability and enhance their performance.
  • A study which looked at patients recovering from a stroke found that mental practice helped these patients regain movement in limbs that they lost control of.

Overall, research shows that mentally rehearsing certain actions mentally can be strongly beneficial to people’s learning. Furthermore, mental practice can also help people in other ways, such as by increasing their confidence in their ability to perform the action that they practiced.

 

Why mental practice works

While going through the motions in your head isn’t the same thing as performing them in reality, there is a lot of cognitive similarity in terms of how your brain interprets the two forms of practice.

Essentially, even though your brain knows that you’re only visualizing the action in your head rather than performing it in reality, it interprets the mental actions in a way that is similar (but not identical) to the way it would have interpreted it if you had performed the action in reality.

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

  • 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 visualization of the performance. However, certain key areas related to motor execution are activated only 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 identical, during actual performance of music and during mental practice of that performance.

Overall, this indicates that there is an overlap in the areas of the brain which are activated during physical performance of certain actions and during the mental visualization of those actions. In the next section, we will see how you can take advantage of this phenomenon, in order to benefit from your mental practice as much as possible.

 

How to use mental practice

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 doing this with a conscious intention to learn and improve.

However, you can get better results from choosing to integrate mental practice into your training in a more purposeful way. That is, instead of using it inconsistently, try to dedicate time specifically to utilizing this technique, just as you would dedicate time to regular practice.

For example, if you train in your favorite sport 3 times a week, you could decide to spend 10 minutes on each of your rest days visualizing the movements that you learned on the days you do your main training.

You can also conduct some mental practice right before the real performance, in order to envision the specific actions that you will perform. As we saw earlier, for example, surgeons significantly benefit from conducting mental practice before performing a surgery. Doing this can help you prepare yourself mentally before the main event, and can also help you calm your nerves and relieve your anxiety.

When deciding when to use mental practice, it’s important to keep in mind that this form of practice is intended to complement actual performance, and cannot replace it entirely. Therefore, the best thing to do is to take advantage of mental practice during times when 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 can also help retain your physical capabilities. This was shown, for example, by a study which found that mental visualization of physical exertion (e.g. imagining that you are lifting a heavy object), helps reduce strength loss during short-term muscle immobilization.

Furthermore, 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, which demonstrates the powerful cognitive connection between mental practice and physical performance.

Mental practice can also help you train during “dead times” when you couldn’t otherwise do anything productive. This refers to time spent in activities such as riding the bus or waiting in line at the store. Instead of letting that time go to waste, you can now put it to a good use, since you don’t need anything to conduct this type of practice, aside from your own mind.

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, and if doing so helps you unwind and prepare yourself to fall asleep. However, if you see that mentally practicing at this time ends up making it harder for your to fall asleep, you should avoid it.

Overall, there are a variety of ways in which you can integrate mental practice into your routine, in order to improve your performance. This form of practice should complement your main practice, and can be especially beneficial to implement during times when you couldn’t otherwise practice.

 

The effects of experience level

A review paper on the topic showed that in comparison with novices, experienced people tend to benefit more from mentally practicing their skills, and this effect is most notable when it comes to practicing physical tasks. The researchers who conducted the study 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 by other research on the topic.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try using visualization techniques as a beginner, but it does mean that you should be wary and make sure that you’re familiar enough with the skill that you want to practice in order to visualize it properly. Most importantly, make sure that you’re going through the correct motions in your head, in order to avoid instilling bad habits, just as you would with regular, physical practice.

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 techniques for a while, and coming back to them when you’re a bit more experienced.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Mental practice, or the act of visualizing and going through the motions of a certain action in your head, can help you improve your proficiency 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 perform physically, 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 (for example, if you are injured).
  • In general, the more experienced you are, the more you will benefit from mental practice, as novices sometimes struggle to visualize 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.

 

What is a garden path sentence

There are many different types of garden path sentences, as we can see 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 tend to 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 led you to reanalyze the sentence, so that “after Bill drank” became an adjunct of “the water proved to be poisoned”.

Most this linguistic processing is performed at a subconscious level. That is, while you will generally notice that you got stuck while reading a certain sentence, you won’t really know why it happened, or how your brain eventually managed to fix the issue, by reanalyzing the sentence in order to provide you with an appropriate interpretation.

Interestingly, your brain sometimes goes further in an attempt to 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 stuck while trying to figure out the sentence’s meaning, at the expensive cost of making you misunderstand what the sentence actually means, while still slowing down your reading.

We won’t get into the mechanisms behind the exact linguistic processing involved here, 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 such sentences occur, and how they affect you.

If you want to dive into the research literature yourself, here are a few relevant papers on the topic, in addition to those linked so far in the article:

Note: garden path sentences derive their name from the saying “to lead someone down the garden path”, which means to mislead or deceive someone.

 

Identifying and fixing garden path sentences in your writing

Because garden path sentences are so difficult for readers to process, it’s important to ensure that they don’t appear 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 in order to identify and fix all of them. However, most of these sentences share similar characteristics, so there is a simple process that you can follow in order to ensure that they don’t appear in your writing.

 

How to identify 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 that result in a garden path sentence.

Note: it can sometimes be difficult to find problematic sentences in your writing, since as we saw above, our brain sometimes conducts a sort of “autocorrect” process that hides them from you. This is especially an issue if you’ve already spent a lot of time working on the text, since your brain is often more predisposed to perform an “autocorrect” on material that you’re already strongly familiar with. If you feel that you need extra tips on how to proofread your texts effectively, read this post.

 

How to fix garden path sentences

Fixing garden path sentences is, similarly to finding them, a fairly intuitive process.

Since there are many different variants of these sentences, there are also many different 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, there are a few simple ways to do this, which will work in the majority of cases, and which will save you the trouble of having to completely rephrase the sentence.

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 can also add a complementizer in an appropriate location. Complementizers 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.

Write:

  • I convinced her that children are noisy.

And instead of:

  • Ann warned her friends were unreliable.

Write:

  • 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 relatively simple and intuitive.

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 sentence would be ungrammatical.
  • This subconscious reanalysis requires a lot of cognitive resources, and interrupts the reading process, while confusing the reader, which is why it’s important to avoid garden path sentences in your writing.
  • Identifying garden path 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 reading halfway through due to an initial ambiguity.
  • Fixing garden path sentences is also relatively 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.