Computers have shaped the way we operate at almost every facet of our daily lives, and in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, school learning has been the latest to evolve. A growing body of evidence, however, suggests that learning by typing on a keyboard is simply not as effective as writing with a pen.
Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology studied whether using a keyboard yields the same learning as writing by hand. Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the paper led by Professor Audrey van der Meer suggests that cursive handwriting and drawing resulted in higher-level processing within the brain over keyboard typing.
The team monitored regions of brain activity important in memory and the learning of new information. Twelve children (12 years old) and 12 young adults were fitted with a high-density electroencephalogram (HD EEG) and asked to use either a digital pen on a touchscreen or a keyboard to take notes of words displayed on a screen. A digital pen was used instead of traditional pen-to-paper, but a previous study has suggested digital pens may be even more effective than ink pens for learning.
Despite carrying out similar tasks, the brain activity of adults using a pen were more active than the group of keyboard users. The children showed similar results but to a lesser extent.
"The use of pen and paper gives the brain more 'hooks' to hang your memories on. Writing by hand creates much more activity in the sensorimotor parts of the brain. A lot of senses are activated by pressing the pen on paper, seeing the letters you write and hearing the sound you make while writing. These sense experiences create contact between different parts of the brain and open the brain up for learning. We both learn better and remember better," said Van der Meer in a statement.
Whilst the evidence points to cursive being an important factor in early development, the team did not explore non-cursive handwriting in this study. However, teaching children handwriting – cursive, in particular – appears to be in decline. Finnish schools are no longer required to teach cursive handwriting, favoring keyboard and touchscreens instead. Young students in the UK are not required to be taught cursive, while Indiana in the US dropped cursive from law back in 2011.
Aligning with her previous work and research from 2005, Professor Van der Meer hopes her studies bring about positive change in the way children learn going forward. She believes that children should be encouraged to write and draw early in development and that “national guidelines should be implemented to ensure that children receive at least a minimum of handwriting training.”