A very small event occurred yesterday. On the surface, it usually doesn’t mean much, but I try to recognize them anyway. The pen I had been using to take notes on my activities and calls with, to jot down ideas with, and to work out solutions with, ran out of ink. As I said, on the surface, it didn’t mean much other than I had written down enough stuff that I had exhausted the ink cartridge in one of those disposable pens that I like to use. And as I said, it was a little thing, but I noticed it.
So, why am I writing about such a seemingly innocuous topic?
I learned long ago, back in college, in a time long before Personal Computers, that the quality of what I was able to learn, retain and utilize was directly related to what I wrote down. It was just me, but writing something helped me get it.
This of course was then the only way to capture information when taking notes in a lecture. This was a time before smart phones that enabled you to play Angry Birds video games in class while they recorded the entire lecture for you to peruse at some later time when you weren’t so focused on something else. It was a time when the professor’s words were ephemeral. They were spoken and then they were gone.
I found that intently listening was not good enough. If I physically wrote them down I not only captured them on paper, I captured them much better in my own mind. Revisiting the notes was always useful when it came time to study, but it was the initial writing down of the information that provided the most value.
When it came time for studying, I found that annotating those already written notes, in effect rewriting them, helped me prepare that much better. Somehow the act of writing helped me learn and retain information that much better.
When I told some of my friends about this study and retention technique, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I still used it anyway.
I thought about this idea, which is no mean feat for a then teenager. I wondered if the simple act of writing down concepts and notes as they pertain to lectures was such an aid to my learning and retention, would it also work with my academic reading load?
Till then I, like most of my student peers, just used a highlighter to highlight those passages in text books that I thought were important. I then tried taking notes on the textbook assignments I had instead of just the typical highlighting. It seemed to work as well. At least for me, it worked. I retained and was able to utilize the information far better than when I just read and highlighted it.
These realizations drove several changes in my behavior that still stay with me today. Whenever I need to learn and retain something I write it down. I learned that I no longer wanted lose-leaf binders and discrete sheets of paper. Paper would become ragged and eventually tear and fall out. I wanted permanently bound composition notebooks so the notes would always be there.
I didn’t want large, full sheet sized notebooks as they were prone to succumbing to the abuse that repeated access would cause, nor did I want the small note card sized ones as those did not allow for sufficient information per page. Hard cardboard or plastic covers were also desirable.
The simple act of my pen running out of ink got me to thinking about all of this learning, and retention and utilization of information. I wondered if it was just me or did others utilize this practice. I noticed that some of my now professional peers in the office also had notebooks, although many did not. As PCs have continued to proliferate, this notebook habit seems to be rarer and rarer.
I have tried to replace my notebooks with my PC. There are a couple of things holding me back. First, although I took typing in high school, I am still basically a “two-finger” typist. If I really get going, the number might expand to four, but never approaches the ultimate of using all ten fingers. The second is, that when I used the PC instead of the notebook, I didn’t retain the information nearly as well. It just didn’t work as well as writing it down for me.
I wondered if this was just me, or if others had found the same thing, so I Googled it. By the way, I continue to find it interesting how in this language a proper noun, the name of a company, can become a verb. Sort of like how having a “party” has now morphed into “partying”. I guess this is also the origin of “Xeroxing” as well.
Sorry. I digressed.
I searched “information retention from writing”. Holy smokes. A ton of stuff came up, supporting and detailing just what I have been talking about.
“A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/
“Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand” http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-using-pen-and-paper-not-laptops-boosts-memory-writing-notes-helps-recall-concepts-ability-268770
“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html
“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm
These are just some of the articles that came up on the first page, and they are predominantly from the last ten years or so. They also seem to deal with the difference in learning between typing and writing, although the last couple do deal with the cognitive and comprehension benefits of writing something down.
This was just the first page. Google said there was something on the order of one hundred and twenty-one million results to my search. Judging by the first hits, I am going to guess that the rest will be rather supportive of the position.
That position, as you might guess, is write it down.
Ah, but there are probably some out there that are at least thinking to themselves that this is all well and good, and after all this discussion about the value of writing things down, does he “write” down his blogs and then transcribe them on the computer? The answer is no. I do not. I actually compose at the computer.
I have thought about this as well.
The best description of the difference that I can come up with is that when I want to learn and retain information, I write it down. I am trying to take external information and internalize it. Writing it down is part of the process that helps me do this more efficiently.
On the other hand, when I am trying to take thoughts and information that are already internalized and express them, I find that the keyboard is actually a faster methodology. I can compose better at the keyboard.
It seems that at least in this cognitive approach technology has the benefit of improving the expression of the written word, but not so much the learning or retention of the information that it represents.
We all like to think of ourselves as somewhat unique. However, there are many things that we have in common. Understanding how we learn is something of a baseline that can also help us understand how we work, and more importantly how we can work better.
As business continues to increase in complexity and velocity, we have more and more information that we need to find ways to internalize that much faster. I think we need to understand that the tools that we employ, at least for me, are best utilized at helping in the expressing of our ideas. The taking of what we have and providing it to others.
On the other side of the same coin though, they are probably not so much good in the process of learning and utilizing of the ideas and information that others have provided via the same medium.
I think this is a point that needs to be remembered going forward. Computers and all the other forms of automation and intelligence that are out there, are better applied as capabilities that enable us to express the information that we have already internalized, but they are not nearly so good, or so helpful in aiding us in the understanding or internalizing of the information that they provide us.
If you really want to learn something, all the data and the research says that one of the best ways to do it is to write it down.
I think I’ll go get another disposable pen out of the pack now.