Saturday, January 29, 2022

Is handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it's not!

Karl Marx wrote a short summary of every book he read and many scholars and successful people refer to note taking as the secret of their success. I once shared a platform with Richard Branson, where he put his entire business success down to his lifetime habit of taking notes. Apart from being dyslectic, he made the simple point that we forget most of the good ideas we come up with, so taking notes prevents forgetting. He attributed almost all of his business ideas and successes to note taking.

I am also an obsessive note taker and have dozens of black notebooks which have helped me learn and plan over the years. I am often astonished, when speaking to large audiences of learning professionals, how few take notes, when the forgetting curve has been established, since Ebbinghaus in 1885, as one of best known and researched pieces of learning science.

Of course, note taking has always been a staple for learners, especially in Higher Education and the research is clear on their efficacy. Generative note taking and the use of such notes significantly enhances learning. Yet, as technology has become more ubiquitous in learning, the ways in which learners can take notes have expanded. In a study of 577 college students, Morehead (2019), it was found that notes were almost always taken, in notebooks and laptops. Smartphones are also increasingly used to grab images of whole slides, useful when graphs and diagrams are presented but also for the main test points. Students often chose different and combined methods for different courses and contexts. Unfortunately, they don’t always know how and when to optimise their note taking.

That brings me to one of the great myths in learning theory, the idea that it has been proven, without doubt, that hand written notes result in greater learning outcomes than typing.

It is an often deeply held belief among educators that, for learners, handwriting is better than typing. You can see why it is so enthusiastically embraced by those who don't really like this pesky new technology, and that good old fashioned pens and pencils trump the computer. But there’s a problem - it’s not true.

The study that got everyone in such a traditional tizz, by Mueller and Oppenheimer, came out in 2014, with the grand title of ‘The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’. This eye catching title got tons of publicity and a willing audience of believers. It is strange how a study is enthusiastically taken up and remembered when it confirms one biases.

Most note-taking literature pre-dates computers, so the study hypothesised that typing led to shallower processing and that typing tended to encourage more verbatim note-taking. In three studies, it compared learners who watched the same TED videos:

  1. Laptop versus longhand performance.

  2. Laptop versus longhand performance (students instructed to avoid verbatim not taking)

  3. Laptop versus longhand performance (study of notes was included before testing)

In all three cases they noted the superior performance on conceptual questions by longhand note takers


Few picked up on the replication study in 2019. In this study, researchers replicated and expanded the earlier work by using the same videos but adding a group that took notes on an eWriter and a group that took no notes. The researchers also tested students on the content of the videos two days after watching to examine the effect of different note-taking styles on retention. In one version of the experiment, they allowed participants to study their notes before the test to imitate more closely how students use class notes to study for assessments.

When it came to conceptual questions, longhand did not outperform typing. Indeed, in one test, the laptop, eWriter and no notes groups actually outperformed the handwriting group on conceptual questions. In general, when learners were allowed to study their notes, all advantages just disappeared for the retention test.

In truth, this study does not prove it either way, as the results seemed to reverse. But the idea that there is a significant difference is not proven.

Then Voyer et al. 2022, a meta-anaylsis that explored the effect of longhand and digital note taking on performance, showed no effect of method of note taking on performance under controlled conditions. It considered 77 effect sizes from 39 samples in 36 articles, showing no effect on note taking approach.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive effort involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

Digital note taking has the clear advantage of being capable of being edited, formatted, stored, printed, searched and transmitted anywhere across the internet and devices. This blog piece is a good example. It also allows tools such as spellcheck and grammar checks to be applied, citations automatically formatted, images and video imported. Not much text is written in longhand these days.

This debate focuses on one issue, the method of note talking but the more important issue is to move beyond note taking to actual learning. Here we know that underlining, highlighting and rereading are not efficient learning strategies. One needs to move towards effortful, generative learning, deliberate, retrieval and spaced practice. Note taking is not an end in itself, merely the start of a learning journey. It is an important bridge to more effortful learning.


Voyer, D., Ronis, S.T. and Byers, N., 2022. The effect of notetaking method on academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 68, p.102025.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Blasiman, R. and Hollis, R.B., 2019. Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27(6), pp.807-819.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J. and Rawson, K.A., 2019. How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 31(3), pp.753-780.

Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.M., 2014. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), pp.1159-1168.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Galton - Nature v nurture and eugenics

Sir Francis Galton  (1822-1911), the English polymath, was Darwin’s half cousin, and was enormously influenced by both The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, especially the chapter in former on Variation under Domestication. This was to lead to his later work on ‘eugenics’, a term he coined. As a child prodigy, who left school at 16 as he found the curriculum too dull and narrowly classical, he was a mind of individual spirit, developing the modern fingerprint identification system and weather maps. He was a brilliant statistician and it was his aim to identify and quantify the nature of human intelligence. The phrase ‘Nature versus nurture’ came from Galton. 

Experimental psychology 

As an example of his approach to science, in meteorology, he gathered data at different locations, three times a day and invented weather maps based on htat data, with the arrows and symbols we see today. As one of the first experimental psychologists, he used his analytic skills, along with data, to create what is called Differential Psychology, the attempt to identify differences between people, rather than their common abilities and traits. He used many of the statistical ideas and techniques we take for granted today, including: correlation (which he used but did not invent) and observed, rather than applied, regression to the mean in his observations of breeding sweet peas. He also used natural distribution curves to analyse the data. 

This developed into a more specific inquiry into the nature of our species. He started with large data sets on physical characteristics such as height and facial shapes. This led to him developing fingerprints as a unique identifier. This was presented in Hereditary Genius (1869). 

This led to his work on specific traits that could be measured to determine cognitive abilities. This included the mental representation and imagination of numbers, including synesthesia, visualisation, word association, unconscious events, social traits, moral instincts and reaction times. But it was his work on character and personality, along with heritability that marks him out as an experimental psychologist of some note. Experimentally, and well ahead of his time in psychology, he used twin studies, both identical and fraternal, along with adopted twins, all in an attempt to separate nature from nurture. 


Unfortunately, this led to his obsession with ‘eugenics’, a term he invented, to promote the marriage and breeding of traits, as Darwin had explained in The Origin of Species. It led to his belief that improvements should be sought, not by allowing hereditary wealth but by showing your personal worth, marriage among equals encouraged and the “better sort of emigrants and refugees from other lands were invited and welcomed, and their descendants naturalised.” One should note that he believed in not allowing what hesawas inferior humans to breed, encouraging them to be monastic and celibate and at times his views bordered on the recommendation of genocide. He was the founding president of the British Eugenics Society. 


He was often so eager to prove his hypotheses, such as the inferiority of Africans, that he refused to accept the evidence that their fingerprints were in fact not less complex than those of other races. His hereditary traits evidence often did not show up in the data, but were promoted as true. The nature-nurture debate had continued with the trend being towards it being much more complex than we mav imagined. Behavioural genetics is now a complex field, the genome has been decoded and much progress is being made to identify and solve problems using knowledge of genetics. 


Eugenics took a terrible toll across the world, with involuntary sterilisation in the US and even in Sweden until as recently as 1976 and in Japan until 1996. It has influenced immigration policies, the repression of bropups within countries and, of courses, genocides, suchas the Holocaust. Galton is now seen as a racist, eugenicist, which he clearly was. Galton was well travelled and with the spread of the British Empire in the Victorian era, he had enormous influence on attitudes towards how people were seen at home in Britain and abroad. This was to influence many aspects of intellectual and public life, not least in education, where it directly influenced Cyril Burt, who then applied this to UK policy in education, aspects of which have survived to this day. At UCL the Galton Chair of Genetics was actually renamed from the Galton Chair of Eugenics and the word Galton only changed in 2019. Yet his encouragement of statistical techniques and experimental methods to maintain objectivity have had a lasting influence in psychology. 


Galton, F., 1869. Hereditary genius. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1892. Finger prints. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. Natural inheritance. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. I. Co-relations and their measurement, chiefly from anthropometric data. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 45(273-279), pp.135-145.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Exemplar of successful implementation of tech in schools

Not often you see schools having resolved the ‘technology’ issue. It is usually a contentious issue, often tribal, defensive, even hostile. Despite the endless claims on workload, the refusal to do what every other area of human endeavour does, use technology to reduce it, education often seems to wilfully avoid the issue. Schools have, in the past, been quite independent, creating their own websites, buying and building their own technology, reducing much of it to a cottage industry. It was impressive to find a school network that took technology as seriously as Curro, in South Africa. They had invited me to give a keynote on AI for Learning, based on my book and experience but I hung around as the teacher sessions were so damn good. This is what I learnt, as I think it is a recipe for success.

Centralised service

Curro technology was a centralised service that provided CPD for all teachers, as well as procuring and implementing ALL technology across the entire network of schools. This is NOT simply centralised procurement, it is a group with the deep expertise needed to tackle the change management, training, trials and implementation of a range of activities. They had already implemented a wide range of technologies across the network, accessible through a single point of entry. This, I think is a necessary condition for success, single door, single sign-in. Everything from administration to advanced AI and adaptive learning systems were distributed from this point. Teachers, in particular, appreciated the simplicity of this one-stop-shop approach. It was clear that the service also had real and trusted expertise from which the whole school could draw, rather than distributing responsibility out to all teachers.

Ecosystem of technology

There was a real sense of technology as a force for good in teaching and learning. With champions out in the schools, supported by expertise at the centre, they understood the balance between innovation and implementation. This allows experimentation and constructive feedback. I got none of the tired scepticism I’ve seen elsewhere. Rather than plump for one system, they have built an ecosystem of technologies accepted by everyone. Careful choices, careful implementation and the sense that different tech meets different needs.

Emphasis on CPD

Webinars and other training is distributed, a term in advance, with practical training in hte technology, news on what’s new and other relevant services for teachers. It is clearly a dynamic service designed to bring teachers with them in the change management process. I was giving a talk as part of that process. The day’s activities were under the banner of ‘Imagining 2022’. It’s hard enough to Imagine what any year will bring these days but it was clear that this was a learning organisation, willing to learn from their mistakes and make the effort to plan forward. It was CPD organised by teachers for teachers and not scared of introducing outside ideas and speakers. There was no sense of being a protected, inward-looking process. You got that sense of CPD being in the hands of the teachers themselves, not something done TO teachers.

Content curation

The teachers were full of praise for the provision of content that they could use themselves or for students. There was no sense of the schools hanging on to the idea that ALL content has to be created and delivered internally by the existing teachers. So what of it wasn’t invented here. It was refreshing to find a sense of openness to curated content from outside sources.

Adaptive learning

This was the big surprise. There were glowing testimonials from teachers about the power of adaptive learning, using AI, to personalise learning for students. It was described as a ‘gamechanger’ by the teacher who presented, with clear targeting, so that efficient and relevant, individual interventions could be made for students. It was clear that they knew why they wanted this technology, had implemented it well and were using teacher feedback to spread the word internally.

Content, slides and short videos, along with digital worksheets, were used in class with regular assessments. A big win was saving time on marking and correction, which was automated and done instantly, even alternative question provision. This, I feel, is an argument that is massively underappreciated in schools. Diagnostic questions, provided by the system were found to be particularly useful, for identifying individual learners’ strengths and weaknesses. This meant that teachers didn’t have to wait for an assessment before making an intervention. There was also openness to including parents in the process, using the tech to allow access to their progress, lessening the need for teachers to respond to parent requests. Learners at home can also be held accountable for work in class or at home in realtime. This use of technology to extend teaching and learning was exactly what I had presented in my Keynote, using Artificial Intelligence as ‘Augmented’ Intelligence.


Far from being reactive to innovation they were on the front foot, seeking out the best of breed technologies. By creating a separate entity that centralised these efforts they could keep delivery safe and simple, as well as think about how to bring staff with them. The fact that I was brought in, someone 5,500 miles away, to give a talk, was a testament to their ambition and openness. I learnt more from them as they did from me. That’s as it should be.