Taking notes: the pen-to-paper advantage

It might seem strange, even primitive, but here's why taking notes on paper may become your weapon of choice when it comes to learning.

Female notebook writing sunny

Whether you’re sitting in a live presentation or watching a video with the luxury of a pause button, taking notes is essential to learning and retaining information.

The first challenge is to actually comprehend the information you’ve been given, and if you get past that hurdle, your second challenge is to stop that newfound knowledge from sneaking off into the dark expanses of your mind. The ease in which you absorb and retain information comes down to a number of factors, but there’s one important factor that may surprise you- the method you use to take notes.

In a world littered by digital screens, it might seem strange, even unnatural, to backtrack to something as primitive as paper and pen. But taking notes by hand could ensure you get the most out of your next lecture or learning session, and might become your weapon of choice.

You can only write so fast

This doesn’t sound like an upside, but in the case of note-taking it actually is. The act of limiting how many words you write down encourages you to reflect more deeply on the information presented. By choosing your words carefully, your brain works a little harder on a far deeper level of processing than it would if you were writing verbatim.

Mark Twain once said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”. This is the perfect illustration of how writing concisely takes more time and effort than writing in a ‘whatever comes to mind’ manner. Writing on paper is far tougher on the brain, but if you put in the hard yards, you’ll be rewarded with a deeper understanding and a higher likelihood of remembering what you’ve been taught.

Many people are visual learners

A major difference between writing on a notepad and on a laptop is the ability to visually emphasise key words in a quick and dynamic way. If you’ve got a Word document open, you can apply formatting – but it’s fiddly, and if you’re focused on fiddling you’re not really listening and absorbing information. In the flick of a pen, you can easily make a certain word bigger, circle it, add diagrams or make connections to other words through arrows and flowcharts. It doesn’t have to be a work of art- it just has to bring meaning to what you’re writing. On a laptop, your note-taking just can’t have that raw visual dynamism which, on return to your notes, will aid your understanding of the subject.

Keep it simple, keep it focused

There’s a certain kind of purity to a notepad and pen. These days, there’s such a focus on integration, with one program feeding into another and into another. The humble notepad is a medium that remains detached from all others, but in this case, that’s the beauty of it. You’ve got a blank canvas where anything can happen- there’s no apps to distract you, and there’s no technical knowledge to hinder you from making the adjustments you want, all you need is a pen.

Sure, the urge to doodle may replace your urge to check Facebook, but here’s the icing on the cake- doodling has been said to increase attention, to hold you in the present moment, and to encourage idea generation… so doodle away!

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