When I was in high school, one of my teachers used to make us hand print copies of materials from transparencies on an overhead projector (I may be showing my age), with the reasoning that re-writing notes by hand was better for memory retention.

I later was told, via sources I can no longer recall, that typing out notes wasn't as good for memory retention because it was too easily done without thinking. Hand printed/written notes, I was told, were superior because they forced you to think about the words and letters being written, whereas typing uses more or less the same actions for each character and can be done faster with less conscious thought. Anecdotally, I know I certainly type faster than I write, and am better able to multitask as I do.

  • Is there any evidence to support the idea that writing is better for retention than typing?
  • Does it matter if you print or handwrite the transcription?
  • Do other transcription methods, such as dictating into an audio recording device, have better or worse retention rates?

A recent senior thesis by Schoen (2012) addressed this exact question. Students watched a filmed lecture and were randomly assigned to take notes with either by typing or handwriting. After the lecture, students were given a few distractor tasks, and then given a retention test. Other students were assigned to take notes from a textbook, instead of a lecture.

In contrast to your theory, there was a main effect of transcription method, such that typing notes led to better retention. However, there was an interaction with context, and it appears that there is no simple main effect for textbook notes. (see figure below)

One could posit that this interaction occurs because of the demands of the task. Taking notes by typing is easier and faster, i.e. more fluent. Hand-writing notes leads to higher cognitive load, which may lead to the student paying more attention to note-taking and less attention to the lecture itself. This would explain why textbook notes showed no effect. I only skimmed through the paper, but it seems very interesting and right to the point of your question, so I would suggest reading it for more info.

Additional information:

Before looking this up, I expected the opposite pattern. Bjork & Bjork (2009) have found that creating desirable difficulties in learning can promote retention. For instance, it is well known that generating information, such as fill-in-the-blanks, promote better retention compared to, e.g., multiple choice tests. Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan (2010) have found that presenting study material in hard-to-read fonts leads to better encoding and retention of the material.

Similarly, a study by Yang, Gallo, & Beilock (2009) looked at the effect of motor fluency on retention. Subjects typed a two-letter dyad (such as ae or aq). Fluent dyads were letter pairs which were typed with two fingers; these pairs are typed faster and more easily than dyads that used the same finger because there is no motor bottleneck. Subjects were later given a recognition test to determine which dyads were presented to them. They found that subjects produced more false alarms for fluent dyads than disfluent dyads. This is particularly strange because false alarms, by their nature, were not actually typed by subject. This effect only held for expert typists, corroborating previous literature which suggests that fluency leads to false recognition. (Presumably for novice typists, none of the dyads were fluent enough to produce a higher level of false alarms).

So it seems there is a confluence of effects here. Disfluency--that is, making things more difficult--can promote deep processing and lead to better encoding and retention. However when this process causes one to neglect other information, such as paying attention to the lecture itself, retention suffers.

For additional reading on the effects of fluency on problem solving, I suggest Alter, Oppenheimer, Epley, & Eyre (2007) and Oppenheimer (2008).

From Schoen (2012): http://f.cl.ly/items/3X2k3g0D352W1Z3p2e14/Screen%20shot%202012-12-14%20at%209.19.40%20PM.png

Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., Epley, N., & Eyre, R. N. (2007). Overcoming intuition: metacognitive difficulty activates analytic reasoning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(4), 569. PDF

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. (2009). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. New York: Worth Publishers. PDF

Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (2011). Fortune favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118(1), 111-115. PDF

Oppenheimer, D. M. (2008). The secret life of fluency. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(6), 237-241. PDF

Schoen, I. (2012). Effects of Method and Context of Note-taking on Memory: Handwriting versus Typing in Lecture and Textbook-Reading Contexts. Pitzer Senior Theses. Paper 20. PDF

Yang, S. J., Gallo, D. A., & Beilock, S. L. (2009). Embodied memory judgments: a case of motor fluency. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition; Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35(5), 1359. PDF

  • $\begingroup$ During one of corporate trainings I was given, the presenter mentioned that if you only hear something, you retain about 17% of information. If you hear and say it, you retain even more. If you hear, say and do, you retain the most. I think seeing and typing falls under one of these, but I doubt it's the most effective method of retention $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Dec 19 '12 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Alex interesting tidbit. i think that general concept is probably true, but that 17% figure is definitely false. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Dec 19 '12 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the late accept. I wanted to read through the Schoen paper before accepting, and although I read over the abstract as soon as I finished your answer, I just got around to reading (well, skimming) the rest of it now. Thank you for the detailed answer, and for finally putting this occasionally nagging question to rest. $\endgroup$ Dec 21 '12 at 9:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AgentConundrum glad i could help! $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Dec 21 '12 at 16:21

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