Handwriting, note-taking, and recall

    I write by hand every day, but not much. While I used to keep a diary in which I’d write several pages, I now keep one that encourages a tweet-sized reflection on the past 24 hours. Other than that, it’s mostly touch-typing on my laptop or desktop computer.

    Next month, I’ll start studying for my MSc and the university have already shipped me the books that form a core part of my study. I’ll be underlining and taking notes on them, which is interesting because I usually highlight things on my ereader.

    This article in The Economist is primarily about note-taking and the use of handwriting. I think it’s probably beyond doubt that for deeper learning and recall this is more effective. But perhaps for the work I do, which is more synthesis of multiple sources, I find digital more practical.

    A line of research shows the benefits of an “innovation” that predates computers: handwriting. Studies have found that writing on paper can improve everything from recalling a random series of words to imparting a better conceptual grasp of complicated ideas.

    For learning material by rote, from the shapes of letters to the quirks of English spelling, the benefits of using a pen or pencil lie in how the motor and sensory memory of putting words on paper reinforces that material. The arrangement of squiggles on a page feeds into visual memory: people might remember a word they wrote down in French class as being at the bottom-left on a page, par exemple.

    One of the best-demonstrated advantages of writing by hand seems to be in superior note-taking. In a study from 2014 by Pam Mueller and Danny Oppenheimer, students typing wrote down almost twice as many words and more passages verbatim from lectures, suggesting they were not understanding so much as rapidly copying the material.


    Many studies have confirmed handwriting’s benefits, and policymakers have taken note. Though America’s “Common Core” curriculum from 2010 does not require handwriting instruction past first grade (roughly age six), about half the states since then have mandated more teaching of it, thanks to campaigning by researchers and handwriting supporters. In Sweden there is a push for more handwriting and printed books and fewer devices. England’s national curriculum already prescribes teaching the rudiments of cursive by age seven.

    Source: The importance of handwriting is becoming better understood | The Economist

    Is QWERTY a really bad keyboard layout?

    I’ve been able to touch-type since I was about 12 years of age, thanks to Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Like most people, I use the QWERTY layout, but I’ve always been curious about other layouts.

    Apparently, it’s a bit of a myth that QWERTY was designed to slow typists down in case the mechanical keys got stuck. In the last edition of the Ultimate Typing Championship, all but one of the 26 competitors used QWERTY (and the one using the Dvorak layout came 12th).

    The main thing to consider, in my opinion, is comfort. I remember being shocked once when I bought a keyboard and it came with a large warning that the use of any keyboard and mouse can cause ‘serious’ injuries.

    This article talks about RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), CTS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) and CTP (Carpal Tunnel Pressure).

    If keyboard use does carry the risk of developing RSI, what is it about the keyboard that’s bad? Is it the physical design, the key layout, hand/wrist posture, or something else? My impression is that key layout is a relatively small component here, for several reasons. The first is my own experience, according to which it’s much more important to use a split keyboard, say, than the appropriate layout if I want to avoid RSI flare-ups. The second is that CTS is largely caused by CTP, which in theory seems more impacted by physical design (chiefly whether a keyboard is split and/or tilted/tented) and less by finger stretching or the horizontal rotating we do with our hands to reach keys at the sides of the keyboard. The third is Carpalx’s model, which suggests that established alternatives like Dvorak and Colemak, while better on the whole, use the pinky more heavily than does QWERTY – maybe it is a little bit bad to reach for the outermost keys, but any layout will have some keys at the extremes, so perhaps the difference between layouts just isn’t that great.

    What about QWERTY specifically? I wasn’t really able to find any research on this. Maybe that’s because it’s very hard to design experiments to test it? You can’t just take a bunch of people and ask half of them to start using Dvorak, because there’s a significant learning curve involved. But you don’t want to find out if learning a new layout is good, you want to find out using it is good once you have learned it. There is no natural control group for these experiments, and no obvious placebo.

    In sum, keyboard use in general does seem to cause RSI, but the risk seems fairly small. Bad key layouts may only be a minor part of the RSI risk, though QWERTY does seem worse than most alternatives, relatively speaking. The evidence here is weak and my confidence intervals are wide.

    Source: How Bad Is QWERTY, Really? A Review of the Literature, such as It Is | Erich Grunewald