Handwriting and Retention

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   [ + ]

Bullet Journaling

I started noticing references to bullet journals from people in various writer-related communities and on Twitter about six months ago. I’m not one for journaling so I didn’t pay much attention. This fall I saw a serous discussion about bullet journaling and quality paper notebooks on one of the writing and stationary pr0n sites I keep an eye on. Intrigued, I thought I’d maybe take a closer look later.

Later arrived with a bang this month. I’m temporarily working remotely without reliable access to the ’net, and without a lot of anything else, either, since I’m at my mom’s place. No standing desk here; in fact, no desk. Just me and my laptop, iPad and iPhone (with a tiny data plan), and intermittent WiFi. Most of my time and project management tools tools are digital and cloud based; I use Wunderlist, Evernote, and email, a lot, for managing time and tasks. They’re great tools but they’re not really viable without reliable Internet.

I generally travel with a cheap spiral bound notebook, a mechanical pencil or two, a couple of gel pens, and a highlighter in my laptop bag. This time, planning on sending postcards, I also brought a Lamy fountain pen. My plan was to do what I used to do, back in the day, and use the notebook to make lists and track projects.

Then I remembered the bullet journal, and did a little reading.

The Bullet Journal® (sometimes shortened to BuJo® for short) was invented by Ryder Carroll. A video about bullet journaling he created and posted to YouTube is frequently identified as the way devotees first discovered bullet journaling. Carroll developed his system over time, and via use. He wanted an analog way to track time, to keep track of what needs to be done today, what was done yesterday, and planning for the future, that didn’t require a great deal of time to manage. He wanted it to be analog because of the way our brains work when we use pen and paper.

The online tutorial Carroll created claims “All you need is a notebook and a pen . . . ” 

I scrounged an old blank book that was a giveaway from a bookclub. I numbered the pages, created an Index, twelve months of month-at-a-glance calendars, a set of calendar spread pages for known scheduled events, a few lists (“Collections” in BuJo parlance”) of books I needed to read, and posts I needed to write, and my first daily page. 

The basic sections (“modules” in Carroll’s terminology) are:

  • Numbered pages with topic headers
  • An Index that tracks where various items are in terms of the numbered pages. 
  • Rapid logging: a method of quick memos using a basic set of codes that are customizable. Symbols indicate whether  a task was completed, migrated to a later date or scheduled, other symbols denote ideas, notes, and priority. 
  • A calendar for the year’s events; Carroll calls this the Future Log
  • Monthly calendars in a list form; Carroll call this the Monthly Log
  • Daily lists of what you plan to do on that day, created the night before or in the morning of the day in question. Carroll calls this the Daily Log.

These are very easy to set up in the minimalist style Carroll advocates; the calendars are essentially lists, with days identified by short codes: M 23 is Monday the 23rd. Set up doesn’t have to make than an hour, beginning with a blank book. 

An important technique inherent in Bullet Journals is migration. You migrate a task or event to another date if you don’t complete it. Eventually, if you keep migrating the same task, you either recognize the procrastination and complete the task, or you realize that it’s not really important.  As Carroll notes:

The purpose of migration is to distill the things that are truly worth the effort, to become aware of our own patterns and habits, and to separate the signal from the noise. 

The key concepts about why bullet journaling works for so many people are, according to Carroll:

Putting pen to paper helps retain things significantly better and there’s a lot of science to back that up. At the same time, technology allows you to share that information, parse the information, and compartmentalize it to work with it in new ways.

There’s a built-in time-management curb in Bullet Journaling in that

You can reduce the amount of things you have to do by transferring things by hand. If a task isn’t worth the time to rewrite it, it’s probably not important. Spend time with things that are important and be mindful of how you spend your time.

In my case, the analog aspect means I can track my time offline with ease. I’ll post an update in February, after using a BuJo for a few weeks, but in the meantime, if you’re curious, here are some of the links that helped me:

WTF is a Bullet Journal and Why Should You Start One? An Explainer.

The Bullet Journal, Minus the Hype, is Actually a Really Good Planner

How To Bullet Journal: The Absolute Ultimate Guide



Brett Terpestra’s iOS iTextEditors Resource Page

Brett Terpestra, the developer of the very useful OS X Marked app (a previewer for Markdown files), has created a page listing and describing iOS text editors.

As he notes:

The information was compiled by the web community on an open Google spreadsheet. I cannot vouch for its current accuracy, but will be verifying everything as I’m able. It’s meant to help you find the most useful way to write, code or take notes for your personal needs. Every editor is geared toward a slightly different purpose, with their own strengths and focus.

There are a bunch there that I’ve tried, and many that are new to me, but the way Brett has created a chart comparing features is really helpful. There really is an iOS text editor for everyone, and his detailed chart makes that clear.

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.