Why Your Online Course Needs Offline Activities

The Science of Handwriting: Why Your Online Course Needs Offline Activities

Why Your Online Course Needs Offline ActivitiesSometimes, I feel like I’m two different people.

I love technology. I live online. Give me email, Twitter, Skype and WordPress, or give me death!

And yet, when I need to think, or organize ideas, or clarify plans, I always turn to my pens, paper, and sticky notes. Always.

For the longest time, I thought it was just me. Maybe it had something to do with how I grew up, or maybe it was my creative-self just aching to be let lose.

But then, I read about some interesting neuroscience research that shows that we actually think differently when writing by hand.

And it has some interesting implications for creating courses that make it easier to learn, too.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

Showdown: The Effectiveness of Laptops vs. Note-Taking

Walk into a typical university or college classroom mid-lecture, and you’ll see rows upon rows of laptops, with students tucked behind them, typing furiously away.

Ask the professors what they think about this, and the responses will be decidedly mixed.

Some believe that they’re just a distraction. After all, whose to say that all that typing isn’t going on Facebook, instead of into a virtual notebook?

Others feel that the benefits of typewritten notes outweigh the potential for distraction, from students being faster typists, to not having to worry about interpreting messy handwriting after the fact.

But researchers from Princeton and UCLA weren’t content to just guess whether laptops were beneficial to students or not; they decided to actually test it. So they conducted three different studies (PDF Source), to see whether note taking or laptop would result in better student outcomes.

Study 1: TED Talk Note-Taking

In the first study, students were asked to watch and take notes on a handful of TED Talks which were projected at the front of the classroom. Half the students were asked to use a pen-and-paper notebook, while the other half used a laptop which was disconnected from the internet.

30-minutes later, after spending time doing other tasks, the study participants were asked a variety of questions; some were primarily fact-recall type questions, and others were more conceptual or application-based.

In general, there was very little difference in the performance of the students on the fact-based questions. But, on the conceptual questions, the longhand note takers did significantly better – even though the participants using laptops had, on average, written more.

This, however, let the researchers to another question. They noticed that when students took more notes, they tended to do better unless the notes ended up being more like mindless transcription (as was the case with many of the the laptop notes). So was it the laptop, or the tendency toward transcription that was the problem?

Study 2: “Take Better Notes!”

The second study was conducted using the same methodology as the first, but the students were divided into three groups rather than two. The first two groups were, as in the first study, laptop users and longhand notetakers.

The third group was also laptop users, but they were given additional instructions: to try to avoid just transcribing what they’re hearing, and instead to take notes in their own words.

Despite being given these explicit instructions, though, the amount of verbatim content transcribed by the laptop students was unchanged, and their performance on the subsequent questions was essentially the same. Despite the students’ best efforts to take better notes on the laptop, longhand was still coming out ahead.

Study 3: Does Adding Review Time Change Anything?

For the third and final study, the researchers wanted to see if the volume of notes taken by the laptop students would make for better test results, if the participants were given an opportunity to review their notes before being tested.

As before, some of the students used a laptop while others used a notebook, but within each group, 50% of the participants were given time to review their notes before being tested.

This time, the difference between long-hand and laptop note-takers (who weren’t given time to review) wasn’t statistically significant. However, when participants had the opportunity to study, the handwritten note-takers once again delivered stronger performances.

This Is Your Brain On Handwriting

So handwriting seems to have a positive effect on learning, at least when it comes to taking notes.

But why?

To answer that question, we turn to another body of research; the effects of writing on language development in children.

In a series of neuropsychological studies conducted on school-aged children, researchers discovered that typing, printing and cursive handwriting all ‘work’ differently in the brain. In one study, when the kids wrote by hand, for example, they were able to express more ideas than when they were typing.

Further research (PDF) showed that this difference could actually be seen in brain imaging (fMRI) scans. When pre-literate 5-year olds were asked to free-hand “write” letters, different parts of their brains were activated compared to when they traced or typed the same letters.

In other words, as psychologist Stanislas Dehaene of the Collège de France in Paris was quoted saying in the New York Times:

When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated… There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize. Learning is made easier.” (emphasis added)

[Tweet “Science says: learning is made easier when you write by hand.”]

How to Get Students to Pull Out Pen and Paper

So what do you do in an online course, to help your students take advantage of the power of handwriting? There are four main steps that you can try:

1. Encourage them to take notes – by hand.

Just as we encourage learners to set aside time each week to work on our course, simply identifying the benefits of handwriting (maybe via a link-back to this article!) can be very persuasive. As the expert, your learners look to you for guidance as to how to be successful learning your material. So tell them!

2. Make printable versions of worksheets available.

There’s nothing worse than trying to fill in a worksheet by hand, only to realize that it’s going to take a ton of ink or be nearly impossible due to the visual design of the page. Whether you create a separate printable version, or just try to keep your main version of worksheets and related activities as printer-friendly as possible.

3. Incorporate some pen-and-paper activities.

Even better than just worksheets, you can also intentionally design activities that encourage literally hands-on learning. In Transform Your Course, for example, I incorporated a number of handwritten exercises including mind mapping, sorting sticky notes, and creating hierarchical diagrams.

4. Use handwriting yourself.

As described in 7 Tips for Creating Engaging Video, when you incorporate “writing on a whiteboard” into video, it can spur students on to watch 1.5X-2X longer, and to take action themselves. Plus, by modelling handwriting as the way to work through the topic at hand, you are implicitly encouraging students to do the same.

Your Turn

Now, I want to hear from you. Have you noticed that you learn better when you “work by hand”? How can you incorporate the power of handwriting into your online learning and training? Leave a comment, below.

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