Handwriting and Retention

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When I got my first laptop (a PowerBook 180) I thought it would be just the thing for taking notes in my graduate classes, particularly since I’ve always loathed my very obviously dyslexic cursive, and even my more legible (but slower) printing.

I soon realized that for all the ease of formatting my typed notes, I didn’t remember the contents of lectures nearly as well as when I took notes by hand. Moreover, when I began preparing for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I discovered that it was more effective if, after I compiled my notes on the computer, I annotated them by hand.

There’s a lot of research that supports my personal anecdotal experience about handwriting encouraging retention.

Pam Mueller (Princeton) and Daniel Oppenheimer (UCLA) tested the retention of students taking notes by hand versus those using computers. The students using computers tended to transcribe, word-for-word, the content of the lectures. Even after researchers explicitly told laptop using students not to simply transcribe the lectures, they continued to transcribe word-for-word, and performed substantially poorer on tests than those taking notes by hand. According to Muller and Oppenheimer, “It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently.” The most dramatic result in terms of the two groups of test-takers were in terms of questions that were conceptual; students using handwriting performed significantly better than those students using keyboards.1)See also: (Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension – Association for Psychological Science
A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop
Handwriting vs typing: is the pen still mightier than the keyboard?
Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away

In terms of the neurological and physiological aspects of handwriting versus keyboarding, while keyboarding is substantially faster, allowing for word-for-word transcription, handwriting forces the writer to concentrate on the physical aspects of forming the letter while simultaneously visually paying attention to the tip of the pen. Writing by hand uses different parts of the brain, and more of them, than keyboarding does, which may have something to do why those writing demonstrate better retention than those who keyboard.

In an essay regarding the necessity for more research into the complex interactions between our brains, hands, and eyes in writing by hand, researchers Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay note that

Our body, and in particular our hands, are inscribed in, and defining, the writing process in ways that have not been adequately dealt with in the research literature. The current radical shift in writing environments mandates an increased focus on the role of our hands in the writing process, and – even more importantly – how the movements and performance of the hand relate to what goes on in the brain.

Writing by hand changes our mechanics, and consequently, our memory. As we concentrate on forming the letters, we’re using parts of our brain that we don’t use when we keyboard, and that appears to assist both memory and recall. Researchers and Psychology professors Dung Bui, Joel Myerson, and Sandra Hale from Washington University discovered that students taking lecture notes via a computer keyboard demonstrated better immediate recall than students creating well-organized lecture notes by hand, but that about twenty four hours later students who keyboarded their notes performed worse on tests about the material than those who wrote their notes by hand. The researchers concluded that keyboard notetakers had poorer recall than those taking notes by hand because they were not actively summarizing and synthesizing key points, as much as they were engaged in transcription. According to them:2)See also: 3 Scientific Links Between Handwriting Your Notes and Memory

Taking organized notes presumably involves deeper and more thorough processing of the lecture information, whereas transcribing requires only a shallow encoding of the information.

Certainly for me, when I write notes by hand, I am in making it more mine; I am condensing it and emphasizing key concepts and connections between concepts, in ways that I am not when I merely transcribe. Consequently, the informtion is mine, and I can recall it more effectively. This same memory effect applies to other kinds of information beyond taking notes; when I write a date and time in a calendar, the appearance and shape of the characters remains in my memory as a visual impression in ways that adding an appointment in my online calendar does not.

References   [ + ]

I Need a Shredder

It’s been just over a month since I started my digital migration.

I’m making slow but steady progress on getting rid of paper. I’ve been getting digital statements where possible for several years now; but the pre-digital years have been in file cabinets. I’ve gone through a couple feet of old financial data, and sorted it into trash and items to scan. I’m scanning them in, slowly, and getting rid of the originals.

Picture of Amaxon's Basic 12 Sheet cross-cut shredderI desperately need a shredder; I’ve had to stop tearing up and scissoring old statements etc. because it’s too hard on my hands. I’m looking at this Amazon Basics 12-sheet crosscut shredder because it will also shred CDs (as I destroy old backups) and easily handle the average scholarly article.

I’ve started reducing paper in terms of scholarly articles, and to a lesser extent, books.

Many of the journals most pertinent to my academic field aren’t included in the full text databases available through my local libraries. Medieval Celtic studies is a little obscure. Accessing, never mind obtaining, digital scholarly articles is difficult if you don’t have an academic affiliation with a research institution with JSTOR and Project MUSE accounts. As an individual, it’s prohibitively expensive, and often, not not even possible to buy articles, (and when it is, a single article is often $10.00 or more, none of which money goes to the scholar who wrote it).

That degree of inaccessibility means I’ll still need to keep hard copy versions of quite a few articles that I photocopied and that won’t scan well.

  • I already have an archive of .pdf scholarly articles and monographs that are indexed and listed in a spreadsheet. I’m checking printed and photocopied articles against that spreadsheet, and shredding those that I have as .pdf files.
  • I’m thinking about how to store the hardcopy articles. A filled file drawer is often difficult if not impossible for me to open and close, and doing it repeatedly is just not on. I thought about using comic book storage boxes, but they’re not quite tall enough for 8.5” x 11” paper. Still thinking about alternatives to file cabinets, including baskets with lids that will fit a standard bookshelf.
  • I’ve reduced the number of printed books I have by some hundreds. I’ve culled books I don’t need or no longer want. I’ve reduced it a bit more by replacing lots of fiction with ebooks, if they’re obtainable without DRM. I’ve lost too many expensive scholarly facsimiles, thanks to Adobe’s changing DRM, to have any faith in the longevity of DRM. I don’t mind DRM on a book I also have in printed form, but I’m no longer willing to buy DRM ebooks unless I have a printed copy too. There’s potentially a small catch to replacing scholarly books with digital versions that are Epub files in that citations are tricky, but I reckon I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it; I haven’t yet.

Converting the paper bills etc. to digital is serving as a test case for scholarly hard copy conversion. I really want the articles to be searchable, if possible, so that has me mulling over Evernote’s paid version. I’m also thinking about trying DEVONthink Personal. There’s also the possibility of relying on OS X’s Spotlight, too. I already use tags, which should help with Spotlight.

I used to use reference managers, particularly EndNote then Bookends. But after trying several, including open source reference managers, I’m not a fan. First, they don’t easily migrate. Second, I never could get the work-with-your-word-processor part to work well or predictably, either with MicrosoftWord or with Mellel. Lately, I’m using Pages for final formatting, anyway. So for now, the spreadsheet method suits me for managing bibliographic data. I like that it’s easily portable, and easily shared. No special software required.

The Less Paper Home

I can remember all the stuff about the “paperless office” quite well, and even at the time, I didn’t believe it. Nor did I necessarily think going totally digital was a viable option for me. I still don’t.

I like paper.

It’s portable and doesn’t require electricity for operation. I can write just about anywhere with a notebook and a pen.

High quality paper, as any Medievalist will tell you, is durable and if stored properly, makes a decent archive media.

High quality paper and printing are sometimes easier for me to read than the screen; it depends a lot on the typesetting, the local light conditions and how heavy the thing is I’m reading.

But much as I enthuse about paper, I don’t want to have to keep filing bills and receipts. For one thing, it’s time consuming, it takes up physical space we really don’t have, and it’s hard on my hands.

We already receive as many invoices and statements as we can via email / .pdf. I’ve started scanning and OCRing the others. I’ve tried using my iPhone to photograph and OCR cash register receipts but it’s not worth the effort; they’re often just too hard to read as digital images, never mind OCR. So cash register receipts I need to retain are going into envelopes by month and date, and they’re going into a shoebox (I know, just like grandma !) after the data goes into a spreadsheet.

My goal is to create a backed-up, cloud-synced, searchable archive of digital business/tax related documents, where I scan it on receiving it (or as soon after as possible), and store the digital version as a searchable PDF.

Once I’ve wrangled the secular materials into a digital archive with redundant backups, I’ll start on a digital migration for scholarly files.

Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner by Joe Kissell

cover of Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner by Joe KisselIn 2007 Joe Kissell, an able an adept technical writer about all things Macintosh with a serious interest in preparing and consuming good food, turned his geekly technical writing skills to documenting the creation of Thanksgiving dinner. Take Control of Thanksgiving, a guide to planning, shopping, and preparing Thanksgiving dinner is the book I wish I’d had the first time I produced a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

The version of Take Control of Thanksgiving I read has been updated several times since that first version. Using easily understood language, Kissell outlines exactly how and what to do if you’re responsible for Thanksgiving dinner. He covers planning a menu, organizing a shopping list, and figuring out the cooking and prep schedule for a typical Thanksgiving dinner consisting of roasted turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, candied sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.

But Kissel doesn’t stop there. One of the basic principles behind Kissell’s how-to guide is that he keeps the need for alternatives in mind. For instance, Kissell, very much aware of the importance of presentation and visual appeal in terms of creating food people want to eat, feels that, properly speaking, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner is built around “the traditional Thanksgiving colors of white, yellow, orange, red, and brown” (TCT 61),  and consequently cheerfully offers not only the “traditional” Green Bean Casserole recipe, but a nifty suggestion for roasting green beans. Throughout Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner, Kissell presents a number of alternates for dishes and cooking styles, and provides for adjusting the menu to suit the idiosyncrasies of guests.

One of the things I love about this book, aside from the easy, comfortable, and clear writing, is that there’s a lot of practical help here. Don’t have time for a day of shopping and a day of prep? Joe’s got that covered. Need to cook for more people? See the section explaining how to scale recipes. Worried about a life that includes six months of turkey tetrazzini? It doesn’t have to be that way, if you use Kissell’s very smart “Deal With Leftovers” advice. Plus, in one of the really, smart, helpful user-friendly parts of the Take Control of Thanksgiving ebook is that the book includes a file of shopping guides and prep schedules ready to print and use. Kissell really does cover all the bases—including vegetarians guests, Tofurkey Roasts, and a homemade Polenta Dome.

It’s very apparent that this is a book written by someone who knows what QA and testing means; these are recipes that have been carefully tested and even adjusted with subsequent editions to make sure that they can be successfully prepared by people besides the author.

Whether you’re an old hand at cooking the bird for friends and family, someone venturing into a holiday kitchen for the first time, or interested in exploring alternatives, there’s something here for you. And if you want something beyond the basics, this is my dead easy recipe for homemade rolls, and my mom’s Pecan pie.

Go download the free 33 page .pdf Take Control of Thanksgiving Sample and read the TOC and excerpts at Take Control Books. Or buy the book yourself in multiple formats for a mere $10.00. Take advantage of the fact that you can download the book in multiple formats, and use it while you’re in the kitchen.

Exporting Your Books and Data From Goodreads

goodreads_booksI like social networking sites for bibliophiles. I’ve tried most of them. The recent idiocies surrounding Goodreads has had me re-thinking my participation for quite a while. The latest Goodreads faux pas has Goodreads deleting reviews and user’s shelves based on arbitrary criteria about shelf labels referring to authors. There’s a certain irony in that the instructions in the My Shelves sidebar on Goodreads refer to a shelf label “gave-up-on” which could refer to a book or to an author.

While I don’t know that I’d call this censorship, I do know it’s poor IT policy. It’s also playing into the hands of authors behaving badly by engaging in the author’s big mistake; responding to reviews.

Reviews aren’t for authors; they’re for readers. Goodreads has very clearly moved from being a site for readers to being a site for authors, and most particularly, for Amazon Kindle Direct and Create Space self-published authors. Deleting “low” rating reviews but not “high” rating reviews is a poor but telling decision. So is deleting users’ shelves with labels that (i.e. labels for groups of books)

I’m probably going to delete my books and profile from Good Reads permanently. I don’t really see them engaging with readers/reviewers honestly, and I do see an increasing interest in exploiting self-published authors to the detriment of readers trying to find the next good book.

Consequently, I’ve been experimenting with importing to and from Goodreads. You can export your data from Goodreads in order to have a backup, or to move your data to another site. Here’s how:

To Export Your Goodreads data

  1. Log on
  2. Click My Books in the top nav bar
  3. Click Import/Export on the left sidebar
  4. Click Export on the far right

To Import Your Goodreads Data to LibraryThing

  1. Log on.
  2. Click More in the top navigation bar.
  3. Under “Features” click Import/Export.
  4. Click GoodReads import.
  5. Click “Choose file” and select the file you downloaded earlier.
  6. Click Save (or OK on some OSs).
  7. Wait for processing (which may take a while depending on the server load and your book).
  8. Select your import options regarding duplicates, tags, etc.
  9. Click the Import books button.

LibraryThing logo

I’m a fan of LibraryThing; I paid the $25.00 lifetime membership fee, and have bought several CueCat scanners for libraries to make entering books a simply matter of scanning, then copying and pasting barcodes into the LibraryThing add a book field. I like the features of the site, I like LibraryThing’s emphasis on actually reading and thinking about books, and I like the attitude about community and giving back. Plus, Tim Spaulding, the developer and founder, is a medievalist.

Amazon owns Goodreads and Shelfari. Amazon also owns a minority chunk of LibraryThing via Amazon’s purchase of ABE Books, who own 40%. Tim Spaulding is still the majority owner of LibraryThing, and he strikes me as fiercely protective of his users (and that’s a very important quality).

There’s a fairly new European site called booklikes.com. I’ve joined it largely out of curiosity, but it too accepts GoodReads exported files. You need to register, then look at your profile; on the far right of the top navigation bar is a gear icon; click it, then click the Import tab. You can import files exported from GoodReads or LibraryThing to Booklikes. There’s an interesting discussion of Booklikes at The Digital Reader; do read the comments and follow the links.

The import can take a few hours, so be patient. Here’s a post from BookLikes explaining the import process.