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Learning by Writing by Hand

Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.

– Isaac Asimov

I’m an early-adopter tech geek at heart, and am generally among the first to embrace a new technology. I may not go to the extreme of standing in line for a new iPhone, but I will pay to upgrade to the latest model, even when I have difficulty describing the changes compared to the previous model. I even owned an Apple Newton for a while. (Remember that summer of 1993? Probably not.)

Not every technology I use is the most recent, however. I love my gizmos, but there’s one area where I’m still decidedly old school. I prefer to write by hand, because I believe I learn better through writing than typing.

The psychology behind the learning advantage of handwriting is starting to be understood. A study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, published in Psychological Science, found that college students who handwrote their notes remembered conceptual information better immediately after the class than those who took notes on a computer. A week later, the note takers remembered both factual and conceptual information better.

This is why I regularly harp on the advantages of writing on whiteboards over typing into a computer and then converting the data into reports or electronic displays. When you write a production number, metric, or problem on a whiteboard, you own that number, you visually see the relationship between it and the numbers next to it, and you recognize patterns and trends more easily.

Typing is much less personal. When you enter data into a computer, the data is transformed into other numbers and analyses that you may see a week or even month later, after the linkage, understanding, and ownership of that data has been lost. You end up with one group of people trained to feed the machine and a different group of people trained to supposedly interpret what the machine spits out.

Yes, writing by hand has its downsides. Handwriting is hard to search, repurpose, share, and archive. Whiteboards can be difficult to use across multiple sites and complex operations. That said, I wish I had a dime for every process I’ve seen that supposedly required a high-powered MRP system, when a whiteboard was more than sufficient.

Write things out, don’t type them. You might be surprised with what happens. The process of writing by hand creates understanding, ownership, reflection, and thus learning that you might otherwise not have gained.