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Writing by hand is still the best way to retain information

TangerineDream
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uptownfunk 5d
There’s something about writing that makes it very personal. I’ve noticed when I make information personal I retain it better.
bayesian_horse 5d
There seems to be zero proof to that.

Too long ago that I can up with actual citations I read about studies that said a better way to "retain" information, in the context of college reading material, is recitation. With recitation they meant verbally explaining the content from memory.

One of the problems with most such studies is that they don't compare techniques with each other.

headbee 5d
I can attest to this and took all of my notes on paper in college. However, once I started a real job I realized that this strategy doesn't scale to all situations. In college, I needed to be able to recall all of the information I had ingested: it was low-write, high-read. In the workplace, there's much more information, but I'm unlikely to need most of it: it's high-write, low-read. I need to be able to reference the information, but not necessarily recall it. Taking paper notes became too much of a burden and I moved to a wiki of markdown notes.
itsmemattchung 5d
I recently interviewed[0] a professional writer who transitioned away from a purely digital workflow (e.g. "getting things done", "mind mapping") to one that incorporates good old paper and pen with flashcards: a hybrid approach. I myself tried (many times) to go either fully digital, or fully analog, only to find myself in the same position over and over again of combining the best of both worlds.

[0] - https://digitalorganizationdad.substack.com/p/the-tools-of-e...

tester756 5d
I have very poor handwriting, so I've never been doing any notes on the paper and when I actually wanted to have some notes, then I've been writing on laptop.

But, for harder stuff like maths I've always been practicing on paper because I felt like I'm putting more thought and thus learning better. When there was some harder course that I needed to prepare better, then paper was the way to go.

yamrzou 5d
Does it apply equally to E Ink writing tablets, or is there something special about writing on paper?
MostlyInnocent 5d
Yup, handwritten is The Best Ever<tm>

All my passwords, for example, are written down on index cards that I keep in my desk drawer (and once my house burns down, I´ll get new ones, thanks for bringing that up). Good luck hacking my password manager to get access to those! (And yes, I know about travel... Guess what, my desk drawer becomes my backpack inner pocket for that, awesome! And Evil Maids can´t read my handwriting anyway).

Then there are design decisions. I always scribble down notes about those in my diary. Hugely useful for future reference: if the note is truly unreadable, I was probably drunk, and it was a bad decision anyway, otherwise it might be considered, depending on exactly how legible it was...

Dowwie 5d
I know absolutely nothing about neuroscience. When I read a claim about handwriting notes having more brain activity than typing notes, it seems like additional.. overhead (pun).. to accomplish the same task: memorization. Less brain activity to accomplish the same task of memorization would imply efficiency, wouldn't it?
chitowneats 5d
Even if this is true (which for some reason I doubt, probably bias), my handwriting is so atrocious and inefficient I doubt I would ever act on this knowledge.
ordu 5d
It is a very suspicious article. It is a psychology trying to provide justification for a myth that most people believe in any case, and there are no clever experiments to find what factor is at play. Is it tactile response at play or the limits of speed of handwriting?

Such reasoning is a subject to all kinds of biases and heuristics, and they are known to support folk myths instead of establishing the truth.

I personally believe that a laptop allow me to stick in a local minima of note taking: to write down every word while my mind wanders elsewhere it likes. It is all about my attention and concentration on what I'm trying to digest. My opinion is based on a sample size of 1 and my "sample" think all these thoughts and can purposely provide data that justifies my ideas, so I'd advise you to doubt them, but the point is they work for me. While I manage to immerse myself in the information processing it doesn't matter if I'm writing, typing, picking my nose of whatever else I'm doing at the time with my hands so they do not distract me from the information processing.

crazygringo 5d
I just want to add a gigantic caveat: NOT FOR EVERYBODY.

I know a lot of people who insist writing by hand helps them. But I also know it's TERRIBLE for me personally.

The article claims:

> Writing by hand on paper creates a tactile, personalized experience... The complex experience of hand writing on paper contains a multitude of variable elements: the creativity of an individual’s written representation of language, the texture of the paper itself, the fine motor skills needed to translate thoughts into written language, the engagement of the physical senses... All of these complexities create a stronger memory of the information that is taken in during the note taking.

Well, no. For me, all of that is a bunch of irrelevant noise. I hate writing, it's so much slower and more awkward than typing (for me), I'm constantly concerning myself with whether I can keep up, whether I should start the next word on the same line or next line, whether it's clear enough for me to read later or if I should repeat the word, whether I need to slow down to be more legible but if that means I won't be able to keep up, whether I need to click the pencil again...

Writing requires me to use a significant amount of my brain for it, and this is taking away from my actual concentration on the content I'm trying to learn. It's not creating "stronger memories" for me, it's creating irrelevant distraction. (Whereas typing for me is effortless muscle memory that takes almost zero effort, so I can direct most of my concentration to the material itself.)

Again, I don't question that it helps some people. But presenting it as universal is just flat-out wrong.

ebjaas_2022 5d
I don't agree with this article. I write hundreds of lines of notes each day, as a part of my coding and work routine. I do it all digitally, in Visual Studio Code, as pure text. I think, as long as you can write fluently on a keyboard, and as long as the writing and typing itself does not steal CPU cycles from your brain while you're doing it, it works just as well as handwritten notes, and, I would wager, probably even better, as you're able to write quite a bit faster on a keyboard than you are when you're writing with a pen.

As for the "slowness" of the writing being a point in itself, I don't think that's true. I achieve the same by editing my text as I write it, pondering over my wording, to make sure that I communicate (to myself, mind you) the precise intent that I'm going for.

I think the fondness for handwriting is mostly based on romantic notions, for lack of better words, predicated by our closeness in time to a period where handwriting was much more common. We think of it as the "original" way of writing, and the most "pure" way of writing. Personally I think jotting down text notes on a keyboard is just as "pure", and I don't really think that there are any extra qualities associated with handwriting, as far as learning and retaining information goes.

ianbutler 5d
I wonder if we've done comparative work between paper writing and writing in something like Obsidian for not retaining the full work but effective downstream use?

What I mean:

When I write something I remember all of it, ironclad, written on my soul levels of remembrance. When I type something, I don't get that, but I get something akin to a pointer. I don't remember the content but I know it's stored in Obsidian/Docs and I can just go look it up.

What's more effective for day to day life? I don't know. I imagine people have a larger bandwidth for the latter, but is it better to keep all the details on hand, in buffer?

Who knows? But I'd like to see some work done on it to compare.

noNothing 5d
FOr me, if I write it down I will remember it and do not need to refer to my notes. But if I don't write it down I am likely to forget. So I did some testing and found that it isn't only the act of writing that helps me, it is quickly looking at what I have written. I think, for me, writing in my own words, and then reinforcing by going over what I have written, is the secret to remembering things.

As far as handwriting versus keyboarding, I find them to be equal in my case.

david422 5d
I'm gonna take a guess here - writing by hand is slow enough that your brain has to summarize what is being verbally spoken in order to capture it all. In order to summarize accurately, you need to have some understanding of what is being said, being able to pick out the key points.

I write down all my notes - in fact, got a reMarkable to replace all my paper notebooks - but seems to be the best way for me to retain information. Even though I tend not to reference my notes later.

midjji 5d
Mostly confusing the benefit which taking notes provides with the benefit paying the minimum attention taking notes requires. Though there is also the memory habit confounder, i.e. if you are used to needing to remember only the things you write down, you are less likely to remember it if you dont. Similarly, if you are used to not need to remember what you type, you wont. However, if you are able to pay attention regardless, and are used to needing to remember even if you aren't taking notes, you will. These confounders are obvious and the article is completely oblivious to them.
gjulianm 5d
The problem with this view is that it only looks at "writing" when processing information. What about search, classification, reorganization, sharing? I have a OneNote notebook with some notes for important meetings: I don't know how would I search for certain things if I only had a paper notebook. In university I took notes in LaTeX and spend significant time rewriting as I studied and understood things better: again, it'd be a giant mess doing that in writing.

Also, you need to have good handwriting. Some people don't. In my case, my handwriting goes from bad to worse the more time I spend writing, to the point it becomes unintelligible. Seems more productive to invest the time it'd take me to improve that in other aspects of note-taking.

keiferski 5d
This reminds me of the Steve Jobs comment [1] about condors and bicycles:

“I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts. And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

I agree that writing by hand (the condor) is better than typing (the human), but the missing part is Spaced Repetition (the bicycle.) Typing information into a SRS system is almost certainly more effective at retaining information than handwriting alone is.

I suppose you could handwrite cards and use something like the Leitner system [2], but this is extremely inefficient compared to using Anki/a software program. At the end of the day, if you seriously want to retain information, you should just use a SRS, full stop.

1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c__DV-Ul9AM

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leitner_system

munk-a 5d
For some people - people learn and remember in different ways and writing by hand (if physically difficult, say you have an essential tremor (points at self)) can require enough focus that it actually makes it difficult to retain information instead being overly focused. Different folks have different learning and retention habits and while these sorts of articles are helpful in learning methods that are commonly useful they shouldn't be taken as gospel.
moth-fuzz 5d
I'm going to challenge the question - if I've got something written down, why would I need to memorize it? Maybe in school where closed-notes tests are a thing, sure, but nowhere in the 'real-world' tests one's ability to memorize in the strict sense. I write things down for a reason and that reason is not just accessory to memorizing it. I put things on paper precisely so I don't have to put them in my brain. To keep them in both places would be redundant.

On that note, I have ADHD, and very little 'brain-RAM', and really lack the ability to memorize things or recall what I've memorized. The only consistent way I've found to 'memorize' things is to deep-learn them, to the point where I can infer all the answers from prior knowledge, and draw new conclusions from existing conclusions, pretty much all the way down. I can't just brute-force-memorize the conclusions themselves. Every step inbetween has to make sense. It's like memorizing the square series as individual numbers, 1, 4, 9, 16, etc. (something I cannot do) vs memorizing the formula x^2 and being able to calculate the resulting numbers when needed (something I can do).

WalterBright 5d
Yup. The way to attend a lecture is to leave your laptop behind. Take a cheap spiral notebook and a couple colored pens.

Take notes.

Once the notebook is filled (or the semester is over) scan the pages, toss the notebook, and buy a fresh one for the next semester.

It works, from much personal experience You're welcome!

1. yes, sometimes I fall behind the lecturer taking notes, which can be a bit frustrating

2. while the notes may not be complete, they trigger the context of the lecture which works

3. reading my notes from 40 years ago - they don't make much sense, as the context is forgotten

4. I wish I had made audio recordings of the lectures. But that was impractical, as I could not afford the cassette tapes required

ekTHEN 5d
I made the observation that hand-writing extremely helps me to solve problems (especially programming and math related). In some way it removes mental barriers / distractions I have when using digital tools (how do i want to organise this? can i link something here?). I can just dump every thought on paper and work way more creatively. In most cases the notes are dumped in the bin afterwards (one couln't uderstand them when reading them without context).

In meetings I also really enjoy to outline some points / a little agenda for myself. This way i don't forget to address "my" topics or can wait for a better moment.

In a way pen and paper are a tool for me to organize my thoughts in a more structured way. And it seems to be more socially accepted to take hand-written notes while talking to someone rather than typing away on a notebook.

vogt 5d
I'd be curious if anyone had good advice on how to improve your handwriting ability well into adulthood (I'm 35). My penmanship was so bad in grade school that I attended special education classes to improve it, but it still was and remains horrible. This is a source of insecurity for me and since I've always been glued to a keyboard it has been easy to handwave away as "screw this, the world is all typing-based anyhow".

But I have seen evidence before that handwriting notes leads to improved retention, and seeing it here now, I'm wondering if there's a framework or resource that can help me feel a little bit more confident in my ability to, you know...write words with pen and paper. It's embarrassing even talking about it, honestly.

rmbyrro 5d
> on paper showed more brain activity than subjects who recorded the same information onto a smartphone

This just shows that smartphones require less effort, not that paper is better, necessarily.

Then they say people were 25% faster to recall information later. But is it like a 4 to 5 seconds increase? I bet so and it's irrelevant.

g9yuayon 5d
I also find that writing by hand led to better retention and understanding when I learned a new language, compared to writing with a keyboard. My guess is that it's because handwriting is slower, which somehow creates a better focus window.
jlengrand 5d
I wrote about why I still do it not so long ago, interesting to see it in the SO blog : https://lengrand.fr/why-i-still-take-notes-on-paper/
qntmfred 5d
I wonder if when writing started to become the preferred method of transmitting information between humans, some people suggested that the methods of oral tradition were superior.
chefandy 5d
If you're in charge of other people, it's worth noting that some very common cognitive problems like ADHD, Dysgraphia, and Dyslexia negate these benefits in some affected people. The cognitive load of making legible marks can become high enough to become the focus, rather than the actual content. Pressuring someone already struggling with working memory to do things like this, is counterproductive, if not demoralizing. Work style advice is great, but make sure you listen if they say it doesn't work for them rather than getting into the "it worked for me so you must be doing it wrong" mindset.
anotheryou 5d
Why optimize for retention if that's the exact burden notes can take off you?

Optimize for things like understanding, structuring, throughput, tool assisted recall, efficiency...

I embrace "prosthetic knowledge" and think it does me a lot of good.

prpl 5d
I can type fast but, because I majored in Physics in college (with lots of Math) - everything was by hand. It was highly impractical to take notes with a laptop (I don’t know anybody who did it).

With ADHD as well, I’d rewrite what I was reading sometimes to make sure I was absorbing it (Did this for much of my Math Analysis classes especially)

I lost it at some point. I’ve been wanting to get back to writing more, maybe with the Remarkable or something. My writing was always terrible but it’s been especially terrible not exercising regularly.

I have one giant markdown file I use for my notes today, which is more convenient than a notebook overall.

xrd 5d
Does it need to be stated that moving all interactions to Zoom means that writing by hand gets much more difficult?

Why? Maintaining eye contact and connection is so much harder when there isn't a shared physical space. If you take notes by hand, you are disconnecting from what little shared connection you have in a small video box on screen.

You could take notes using the keyboard but the keyboard is right next to the microphone. Though we have technology to reduce the noise it's going to impact your concentration and focus in the meeting at the very least and everyone else's concentration at the very worst.

blindseer 5d
I just want an eink tablet that lets me search my handwriting using grep. It's almost 2023, why doesn't something like this exist!?!
makeitdouble 5d
I was hoping the cited studies weren’t about the same rehashed students taking notes ones…there was a most recent one [0], but guess what ? it’s about volunteer students from the University of Tokyo.

On one hand I believe some people will remember things better when using the media they’ve used for almost their entire life (to note: japanese school is more reliant on paper and writing than most western countries to my knowledge), so I totally understand the results.

On the other I’m surprised we see no actually serious, wildly targeted research that also touches on working people, like sales fleet who actually make a living following calendar appointments. With nothing coming out from outside of the “kids learning” setting, it kinda feels like the reality is way more complex than “hand writing is better”

[0] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210319080820.h...

xbmcuser 5d
Writing by hand is how you have been taught to retain information when young so that what your brain is trained for it. This has nothing to do with writing rather something to do with how your brain had been trained to retain information.
damontal 5d
I tried learning shorthand after reading Samuel Pepys’ diary.

If you’re good at it you can write as fast as someone speaks but I never got good enough at it for it to be useful.

dougdonohoe 5d
I'm now 54 and I've had my way of doing things for quite a long time. For me, I write down, on paper, TODOs and other notes. It's my primary means of recording information. I also have my own personal Confluence cloud instance, for which I pay like $12 a month, on which I record things I've learned which I know I'll forget and which I'll want to remember in the future.

For example, on my "C and C++ page", I actually used my note regarding "nm --demangle" which I used to help figure out a linker issue in some C++ code that I have to build in my current job. I haven't done much with C/C++ in years, so this was helpful to trigger long forgotten skills.

I do find that writing on paper is important, and helpful to not lose certain tasks. It is also helpful when I'm learning, even if those notes never make it to more long term storage. I find comfort writing things down, especially TODOs, since they won't be forgotten. It also helped me when I was learning Go, or Kubernetes.

The other thing I've learned in my career is that everyone is different. I've stopped trying to convince anyone that 'my way' is better. It's only worked for me, that much is certain. Can I learn new tricks as an old dog? Sure, for example, I recently learned to use 'ripgrep' and it's my new go-to tool.

Be open to new things, but also try and optimize what is best for you. Peace and happy thanksgiving for those that celebrate!

UlisesAC4 5d
Something that also helped me was reading aloud. The level of concentration required to do it is similar to hand writing.
BulgarianIdiot 5d
I do draw and write things by hand, but typing is absolutely faster, and ESPECIALLY because you can seamlessly edit.

And you know, printers exist.

begueradj 5d
It's funny that few scrolls below this post, I found this entry: Socrates on the Forgetfulness that Comes with Writing (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=33724759)
lowken 5d
I skyrocketed up the ladder at my current company in about 18 months using the following technique.

I take crude sloppy notes on a topic or project. I listen for concepts it words I don’t understand. This includes the jargon in my field (FinTech).

For projects I take my sloppy notes and format them in a Google Docs that serves as a design/QA testing document. I add technical notes and other details to this document.

If I come across concepts or terms that I don’t know and I determine are important I add these to an Anki deck. Then I review this Anki deck daily and commit this information to my long term memory.

I can’t describe how having critical information at my disposal has changed my life. I’ve gone from zero to one of the top individuals at my company in a few months and I credit this success to my little system.

As a side benefit Anki has an amazing search feature for times can’t recall something.

eterevsky 5d
From my understanding, the main advantage of writing by hand in terms of memorization/understanding comes from the fact that writing just takes more time. I am not aware of any research that would show that writing is more effective than engaging with text for the same amount of time in a different way, like typing it and then re-reading.
aizyuval 5d
It lacks to mention the simpleness of rewriting using digital means.

When I’m able to rewrite a paragraph a 1000 times compared to much less while writing, the repetition leads to retaining information, among other things like text sharpness etc.

The article does show that for simple, day to day and short notes, it’s beneficial to use a journal.

sspaeti 5d
I agree that for new content, the initial time handwriting makes sense, before adding it to your second brain. For me, Writing is therapy!

I usually write as much as possible on my laptop because I can type as fast as I think. At the same time, my handwriting can’t keep up with my thinking speed. There is no slowing down and forgetting ideas or thoughts. On the other hand, I can reformat, re-arrange, add, and delete, which will help my thinking process which wouldn’t happen in my brain. The advantage of pen and paper is that I use different muscles and brain activities when I write, which helps me think differently. I usually use them when I need to outline my blog post, if I’m stuck or distracted on something, or if I go out in nature and only bring my physical journal.

Also, when writing journals or other ideas within my second brain, I can start connecting them. Improving my thoughts over time and generally refine easily and reading them, whereas, on paper, notebooks get lost over time, and finding the right things when needed is very hard.