Brains retain information they’ve reworked, not just recorded
There seems to be an interesting intersection in our brains where memorizing meets learning. We know that to form long-term memories, or brains seem to unpack and reencode memories while we sleep, and it seems that a similar concept is in play for how we first learn information we encounter. When taking in information, it appears that we need to have a chance reencode things even when we first hear them, and one of the best ways to do that is to write too slowly to keep up.
This examination in how we learn and retain information has been sparked by the rise of laptops, especially in lecture halls on college campuses. Most of us type significantly more words per minute than we can scratch out with a pen or pencil, and as a result written notes on what we’re hearing drifts towards transcribing what we hear. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles wanted to know if those notes would prove to be any more or less useful than notes written by hand, which require the writer to repackage and summarize the material being taught.
Do we tune out when we type?
A series of tests were conducted to see what possible benefits each method of writing offered. Test subjects listened to TED talks, taking notes either by hand or typed on a laptop. They were then tested on what they heard to see how much they could retain. Both groups did equally well on single data points, like dates or names, but their results diverged when asked to synthesize an answer from the information they’d heard. For those questions, the typists had a much harder time, even in a follow-up study where they were specifically instructed to type slower and avoid taking dictation (because that was apparently easier said than done.)
A second test looked to see if speedy note-taking could make up for this initial shortcoming if there was a study period between the instruction and the test. The more detailed, complete set of information might be better when students reviewed their notes, giving transcription an edge. However, that advantage never showed up in tests, indicating that the act of interpreting information in order to write it down is key to fully digesting it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that anyone looked at rewriting your own typed notes, but these studies still indicate that learning sticks better when more of your brain is involved, playing and reshaping the data a bit first.
Remembering the written word or the drawn one?
This aligns with an unrelated study that looked more at memory, but also gets at the idea of how engaged you are with information before needing to recall it. Participants were given lists of nouns, and either had to write a word repeatedly, or draw a picture of it. After a distracting filler task to reset their attention, participants were asked to simply remember as much of their initial list as possible. People who drew their lists were able to remember many more words, regardless of the artistry of their artwork. The researcher team from the University of Waterloo suggest that it was the multiple modes of thinking required to translate a concept into an image that made participants more actively engaged with a word, and thus build a more durable memory of it.
So sharpen your pencils, because if you can take notes in graphic novel form you should completely ace your next test.
Source: Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away by James Doubek & NPR Staff, NPR