Should I type my revision notes?

By Matt Burdett, 21 February 2020

This article is about using handwritten notes to study Geography.

Should I type my revision notes? The answer is: no.

Well, actually it depends. If you are going to type your final assessment (such as a piece of internal assessment or coursework, or an essay that you will hand in to your teacher) then yes, typed notes might be helpful.

But if your notes will end up on a handwritten answer in an exam, then you should dispense with the laptop or tablet as soon as possible.

There are lots of benefits of handwritten notes. (The benefits of typed notes are later on the page – but spoiler alert, they still aren’t beneficial for revision purposes.)

The benefits of handwritten revision notes

Some of these benefits are relatively simple and quite obvious:

  • You practice writing by hand, which means you are likely to be more legible in the exam
  • Your hands will become more used to the act of writing – literally, your muscles will become stronger so you can write for longer
  • You can experiment with different styles of handwriting, finding the one that is quickest for you
  • You can read back to check that the way you form your letters is clear, and change anything that’s not good – such as ‘v’ appearing like an ‘r’ in some styles of handwriting
  • You practice staying on the lines (which is increasingly important as most exams are scanned and then marked on a computer screen)

However, the main benefits of handwriting your revision notes are in your brain, and that’s what we’ll focus on here.

Using your brain’s capacity to the maximum

If you have to look at your fingers while you type, even once a line, you’re not a touch typist. Touch typing happens when your typing is automatic, and you’re not even aware of what your fingers are doing. Every bit of your brain’s processing power is being used to understand and learn the content. If you can’t touch type, you’re wasting your brain’s processing power. That’s because you are having to work out where the letters are. But with handwriting, your brain switches to automatic mode: it learned how to form the letters when you started writing, so your attention is better focused on your work.

Haptic feedback

You know this term from your mobile phone settings. Haptic feedback is that little buzz you get when you type a letter on your mobile phone. It’s a total waste of battery. But you might not be aware of the real meaning of haptic feedback, which comes from touching and feeling your pen and paper. Haptic feedback literally means the feeling you get from touching things.

When you type, you are always touching the same keys, regardless of what you’re writing about. The feeling, weight, temperature of the keys is always the same. So, your brain is building a memory while relying only on the visual stimulus of seeing the characters on the screen. You can italicise, underline, bold, highlight, add textboxes and so on, but it’s still only a visual stimulus.

But your brain remembers things better if you use multiple stimuli. If you handwrite your notes, you’re probably going to not only see the difference on the page; you’re going to feel it when you use different pens, or pick up a different notebook, or touch a post-it sticky note when you move it from the ‘to revise’ to the ‘understood’ section of your notes. You might even smell the difference when you get out your highlighter compared to when you use a biro.

The ‘toilet paper’ scroll effect

How often are you on Facebook or Instagram and find your thumb pushing the screen on, when you aren’t even really thinking about what you’re seeing?

It’s like a giant toilet roll. The screen keeps on coming, more and more and more. There’s no end in sight and it’s easy to lose things on the screen. What’s worse, the screen constantly changes – a title that was at the top is now at the bottom because you scrolled through the page.

If you handwrite your notes, that doesn’t happen. You always know how far through your revision notes you are, because you can see and feel the paper. Even better, the layout of pages doesn’t change, so when you try to recall that important fact, you can remember its location on the page.

Drawing diagrams can really help

Be honest: how much time have you wasted trying to draw a diagram on the computer, when you could have done it in a fifth of the time by hand?

Diagrams are a great way to revise because they involve transfer, i.e. you transfer the information from one type to another (usually text to diagram). If you’re working on paper, this can really speed up your revision.

Shut down the distraction

Laptops and devices are distracting. Notifications constantly pop up and take your attention away. And revision can be, well, boring. You’re far more likely to quickly check your messages using Whatsapp Web if you have the browser open right there in front of you.

If you’re handwriting your notes, you can leave your devices in another room until you’ve done with your session. Then you can open up your messages as a reward for the hard work you’ve done.

The benefits of typed notes

You were still hoping you can keep your laptop on, right?

Well – ok there are some benefits to using typed notes.

  • They can be quicker to organise and re-organise
  • Spell-check can quickly tell you if you are spelling the word wrong, and help you correct it
  • If you’re a fast typist, it can be a lot quicker to make your notes
  • You can instantly share notes with others, and receive their notes too!
  • You can collaborate on note-taking, so your friends can tell you if you’ve missed something
  • A lot of information (like this website) is already typed, so you can copy and paste materials for shrinking down

So, yes, typing can sometimes be better for some things. But why not type your notes only for the first week or two – just until you have the overall outline of notes – and then print them, and switch to paper?

Two conclusions

  1. You’ll never type faster than you can think. And revision is all about thinking.
  2. You can’t be accused of timewasting if other people can see that you have physical notes in front of you.

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