One thing I’m frequently asking my students to do is to utilize both hands while studying and doing homework. Most students simply engage whatever they’re doing, whether it is note-taking or math problems, with just their dominant hand. Their non-dominant hand, meanwhile, is under the table doing nothing.
There are a number of practical reasons why I ask for the use of two hands and one, big, psychological reason.
Often the student’s paper is sliding or spinning, causing the work to become both slower and sloppier. Using the non-dominant hand to hold the paper in place is the obvious solution. It allows for both better handwriting and faster work. Although bringing the extra hand into play feels like it’s going to be more effort, it turns out to make the work easier.
The non-dominant hand can also be used as a focus-enhancing tool. Its fingers can be used to pinpoint critical parts of instructions or questions that you’re worried about forgetting. You can use the extra hand to frame key areas of text, making it easier to pull out information that you need. You can use one hand to hold your place in the reading and the other hand to take notes. And the non-dominant hand can be used to cover up distractions on the page, so you can more easily focus on what you’re working on at the moment.
This is one of the strategies we consider mandatory for standardized tests. These tests are time-sensitive, so any technique that makes you more efficient is helpful. Standardized exams are also long and exhausting, so we’re always eager to find ways to reduce cognitive load. Because the second hand can hold your place or keep track of key information, it cuts down on how much we have to hold in our heads. This is particularly critical for the ACT’s science section, in which you should use your non-dominant hand to hone in on the relevant data as you read the question.
On a deeper level, using two hands for homework and studying is a powerful way to convince your brain to care.
The more physically engaged you are, the more your brain sees that you care. The more your brain sees that you care, the harder it will work to help you learn whatever you’re studying. When you’re using both hands, it shows full engagement. When one of your hands is in your lap, in your pocket, under your leg, or clutching your phone, you’re only showing half engagement. Your brain observes this halfhearted effort and decides that whatever you’re trying to learn isn’t really worth putting energy into.
You’ll have to try a little bit harder than this:
Remember, the way your brain decides whether or not to devote resources into figuring something out and forming a strong memory of it is by observing whether or not you actively devote resources–time and energy–into learning it. How hard your brain works to learn something is less about how badly you want to learn it and more about how badly it appears to your brain that you want to learn it. Engaging studying and homework with both hands is a very simple way to show your brain that you care.
Similarly, using two hands is also a quick way to wake yourself up when you’re feeling tired. Because of self-perception, when you become more physically active, you start to feel more alert. Sitting up straight rather than slouching has the same effect. Furthermore, using both hands squares up your shoulders toward the work. The brain sees this and receives the message: “I’m facing this challenge directly.” Full engagement of the body leads to full engagement of the mind.
Also, and this is purely speculative as I’ve seen no research to back it up, the use of your non-dominant hand may help ensure that both hemispheres of your brain are active and receiving ample blood flow. I think this may be the case because, in most people, the left hand is controlled by the right hemisphere and the right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere. We do know that any techniques that engage more of the brain facilitate better learning.1 Furthermore, learning, logic, and creativity normally require the use of both hemispheres.2 I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if future fMRI scans show that using your non-dominant hand results in greater activation of the hemisphere to which it is linked.
Because school is so focused on the cognitive, we too often forget to engage the physical. Our ancestors didn’t learn while sitting idly at desks; they learned while being physically engaged with the world. We’re obviously not going to transition from our desks back to the savanna, but we can still bring to bear at least some aspects of how we naturally learn.
You have two hands. Use them.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014. Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
He writes the popular self-improvement blog Becoming Better, so if you liked this article, head on over to becomingbetter.org and check out his other work.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.
2 Kauffman, Scott Barry, PhD. “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity.” The Huffington Post. September 5, 2013.
Cat: distillated. “Kitten studying.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Image rotated.