Here at Northwest Educational Services, Greg often says that successful studying is all about “making product,” by which he means physical, on-paper product such as notes, explanations, outlines, diagrams, drawings, charts, timelines, mind maps, flashcards, practice problems, practice tests, corrections of returned homework, and test-corrections. Whew!
Greg likes to say that behind every A is a stack of paper that demonstrates the studying that the student did. Importantly, he is referring to a stack of paper that was not assigned homework. It was extra. No one asked the student to do it. This additional effort is an essential habit of successful students.
Although there is a benefit to mental recall, talking about what you’re trying learn, watching videos, typing notes, Quizlet, and various other forms of non-paper studying, the most effective types of studying are definitively those that involve writing things out by hand.1
By contrast, common practices such as underlining, highlighting, and passively reading or re-reading simply do not work.1 In fact, they create the illusion of learning, which can make students overconfident.1
There are two outcomes of studying that students desire: understanding and memory. Both are impacted positively by making written product. This means that making written product accelerates your journey down the mastery path.
In my article on cognitive load, I explained one reason why putting ideas on paper helps us understand them in the first place. Using paper to store ideas removes them from working memory, freeing up additional brainpower we can use to figure things out.1
What’s more, the act of writing ideas out by hand is also a physical, effortful action, which is precisely the kind of studying that convinces your brain to care. When you physically write something out, you’re spending energy on it. Because of self-perception, your brain observes this effort and takes it as evidence that the idea is worth spending energy on. Why else would you be doing it?
Thus, creating written product makes things easier to understand and encourages your brain to devote extra resources to solving and remembering whatever academic puzzle you’re wrestling with. But those aren’t the only benefits.
The Power of Paraphrasing
When you take notes by hand, you don’t write everything down; you filter. And the act of filtering the worthwhile from the forgettable is hard; it takes energy. In order to summarize something and rephrase it in your own words, you have to think about it. Rather than being on autopilot, you have to be an active agent in the learning process.
By expending that energy, you’re again sending a clear message to your brain the concept is worth understanding and that what you record on paper is worth remembering. Taking notes is more effective than underlining and highlighting because it’s harder than underlining and highlighting.
And this brings us to the issue of typing vs. writing by hand.
This man is torn between two worlds:
Which one is better?
The pen is mightier than the keyboard.
It turns out that recording the information isn’t what makes writing so powerful. It is the thinking that occurs as we write.2
The evidence for this comes from studies that compared students who took notes by typing with students who took notes by hand. Because typing is faster, the typers got more details into their notes. Those who used pen and paper recorded about 50% less information in their notes, but, surprisingly, they were able to recall much more than the typers a week later.2
“Those who wrote out their notes longhand took down fewer words, but appeared to think more intensely about the material as they wrote, and digested what they heard more thoroughly, the researchers reported in Psychological Science. ‘All of that effort helps you learn,’ said Dr. Oppenheimer,” one of the researchers.2
You might think that typing would be superior at convincing your brain to care because it requires two hands, but we have to remember that two-handed learning is effective precisely because it takes more effort, and hand-writing simply takes more effort than typing. Taking notes by hand is more physically demanding and more mentally strenuous, and it is the effort you put in that tells your brain that something is worth remembering. Plus, taking notes by hand should be a two-handed process in which the non-dominant hand holds the paper in place or holds your place in the text.
Making written product is hard work, but that is precisely why it makes school easier.
To Tool is Human
What really sets our species apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is how heavily we rely on tools, but this reliance is not a bad thing. It is precisely what gives us our power. As a student, your primary tools are paper and pencil. Embracing the use of these tools is part of giving yourself permission to be human and avoiding the trap of making school harder than it needs to be.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
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 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.
2 Hotz, Robert Lee. “Can Handwriting Make You Smarter? Students who take notes by hand outperform students who type, and more type these days, new studies show.” The Wall Street Journal. April 4, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/can-handwriting-make-you-smarter-1459784659.
Title Image: Arment, Marco. “Brainstorming.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.