Handwriting or Typing Your Study Notes: Choose What Suits You Best (a bonus checklist inside)

student thinking of handwriting or typing their study notes

Most of the productivity-guru will demonize typing since it does not boost your memory as handwriting does. But the answer you reach for yourself should be much more nuanced — here we will go deeper than the top of the iceberg. We will discuss handwritten and typed notes not only in terms of the neuroscience of learning (as it’s usually done) but also contemplate the use of these two note-taking strategies in your everyday study routine. In the end, we will measure the costs of the process against the benefits of the result—our handwriting or typing checklist will help you to find the right approach that suits you best.

“To type or not to type my notes”—this is a dilemma of a millennial-Hamlet studying at college. Living in the digital era, every minute we experience the changes in how we study at college and at home. For example, some European countries dropped handwriting courses from their primary school curricula and more and more schools and universities all over the world contemplate accepting typed exams! Should we all go digital from top to toe or are there still benefits in analog studying practices like writing your study or lecture notes down by hand?

To cut it short — it depends. Are you taking notes of a live lecture? will it be recorded and available on Moodle? are these notes of the class discussion? or you are making notes as you study through a textbook or several articles? There are so many situations in which we make notes and have to decide on the right system and the right media for it to maximize the result. You choose either typing or handwriting (or a system that combines both) depends on the type of the assignment, the circumstances of note-taking, and the desired results (like memorizing or storing the information). Let’s dive into the details together.

Vote for Handwritten notes…

As mentioned, handwriting indeed wins over typing when we bet on the memorization of things that are being written. First, the physical process of writing triggers our memory capacity better. Moreover, it’s proven that you will understand the handwritten information much better and retain over a longer period as compared to typing your lecture or study notes.

Why is it so? The trick is that we can’t write as fast as we can type. Therefore, there is no way around shortening and synthesizing the information we’ve heard or read, just because one can’t type it verbatim. Synthetizing is actually one of the stages of comprehension, which goes like this: memorize, conceptualize, synthesize.

Typing, on the other hand, allows you to record the information word by word. It is a rather mechanical action, which will not help you to retain, understand, and then reproduce the information—indeed, “the pen is mightier than the keyboard” as a pair of scientists have said.

Another huge benefit of taking notes by hand is the possibility of doodling or quickly drafting a small scheme or a formula of a process. Doing it on your laptop might be confusing since you will start to search for the right tool or function; with a pan you just do it.

Moreover, if you like stationery (hey, buddy!) — be my guest, exploit the beauty of taking handwritten notes! Just don’t play too much with colorful pans and washi tapes while you take your notes — leave these embellishments for later, when you revise and restructure your notes.

person taking notes by hand

… or Typed notes?

Let’s face it: live lecture notes or summaries of one’s readings look neatly only on Pinterest.

In reality, these scribbles might not make sense to you already five minutes after the class! And then what’s the point of notetaking if you can’t consult them later? Moreover, in a lecture setting, there is often too much information, a professor can rattle off the lecture, or there is a new term popping up that you can’t check quickly and remain in ignorance for the rest 50 minutes…

You’ve probably guessed what I am hinting to — typing your lecture notes on a laptop would be a much better choice in these situations. Therefore, if the information given during the lecture is unique (by this I mean that it can’t be simply verified in your textbook or on teacher’s slides) and you will need this info for your finals and future job — choose a laptop.

Another huge benefit of typed notes and lectures — they are searchable. You don’t need to search through a pile of papers under the table to find a term or a quote needed for your final paper, you can just search through the whole corpus of your notes in one click. (If you still have your textbooks and notes piled up all over the place — read this article about decluttering for students).

Your typed notes are also portable (literary, your laptop won’t turn heavier with every new megabyte) and accessible from every device if you keep them in cloud storage or use a platform like Evernote. While you can easily doodle in your notebook to visualize some of the points, it’s so much easier to include screenshots or textbook quotes and links to your typed lectures. 

Learning is more and more about collaboration and group work or team assignments are quite popular in colleges. Typed notes are an excellent instrument for facilitating this type of learning since they are sharable and support group work.

However, some colleges strictly prohibit using laptops during lectures and tutorials: in these circumstances, you should make the best out of your handwritten notes. If you have a tablet, use it for taking notes with a stylus: you will not only get all the benefits of handwriting, but will also have a sharable, searchable, and well-arranged file.

person typing lecture notes on a laptop

If you type — type it smart!

Typing has actually many pros that we often overlook, hopefully, it’s also rehabilitated in your eyes. But is there a way to get some of the benefits of handwriting too? It is indeed possible, with these simple principles.

Typing longer notes does not necessarily mean better notes or better end-results. Therefore, try to avoid typing what you hear, don’t play an old-fashioned stenographer (especially if the lecture is officially recorded to appear later on Moodle) — synthesize instead. Summarize a sentence in a few words, write down only the most important terms or references, or try to keep track of your thoughts and associations that evolved during the lecture or while reading. In this way, you imitate the speed of your handwriting with all the benefits of it. It takes some practice to break the habit of transcribing lectures or copying textbook paragraphs verbatim, but it is totally worth it.

However, there is always a chance you unconsciously return to an easier cognitive process of typing word for word. If it happens, you can adopt a practice of revisiting your verbatim notes and summarizing them by hand, aim at converting 1000 typed words into 2 handwritten sentences! It will increase your retention and you will end up having both a detailed lecture or tutorial transcript and a nice summation for quick revisions and self-control. The only backside of this method is that it is time-demanding; however, it can become a part of your exam preparation routine.

And finally, let’s face it: the biggest challenge and actually the main drawback of typing class notes on your laptop is social media. When you type your notes during a lecture or a seminar, are you all the time engaged in studying or do you allow yourself to scroll Facebook or Buzzfeed for a bit? No shaming here, it’s indeed hard to keep concentrated for an hour and a half without taking any breaks. However, when working on a laptop is full of pitfalls in this respect. You want to check Twitter just for two minutes and you end up spending 20 minutes, without accounting for it since social media are designed to catch our attention.

When you get bored or deconcentrated with a pen in your hand, you can doodle maybe (or take a nap if you’re a skilled student) but you would probably return your attention to the classroom in five minutes or so. So if you tend to lose concentration, take handwritten notes or use blocks on your laptop or even switch off Wi-Fi. Another trick is to open a notetaking program in full screen, then you will get less distracted.

The final advice, whatever method of notetaking you choose, is not to multitask. Even if it seems legit to look up an unknown term or read a synopsis of the book the lecturer has just referenced — highlight the entry in your notes and leave it for later. Additionally, don’t spend too much time embellishing your typed notes with highlighters or changing styles and headings: save it for the next day when you revise your notes.

Handwriting or Typing Checklist

Here is a laconic checklist that can guide you when figuring out which of the two to choose — handwriting or typing. You should simply tick the points that are important for you in the note-taking process and the desired results — and it will bring you to an answer!

Handwriting or Typing your lecture notes checklist

In the end, it all comes to finding what suits you best. And sometimes it won’t make that much of a difference whether you choose handwriting or typing your study notes… just do it effectively and revisit these notes regularly!