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You remember things better when you write them down

Thursday, February 7, 2019

All my years of experience as a student, as a teacher as an author and a publisher have taught me the power that writing things down has on the commitment of information to memory. In the context of students and their own study, this, in my mind has the potential to dramatically affects their results.

As a very young adult preparing for a solo gap year in Canada, I was quickly thrown into independence and with it, the world of writing shopping lists, street addresses of people to visit and the odd phone number in the search for accommodation and work. On plenty of occasions, I diligently wrote down all of the important things I needs to remember and subsequently rushed out of the door, forgetting the paper I’d just written everything down on. Somehow, however, I always came back with the right groceries, banged on the right door and rarely dialled a wrong number. Through this process, I suspected from an early age that by writing something down, I was more likely to remember it. Even if I never looked at it again.

Pam Mueller of Princetown University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California have tested this hypothesis through their own experimentation. They further categorised note-taking into two types: generative and non-generative (or copying things verbatim). Non-generative note-taking was much less effective.

The generative process requires the writer to simultaneously process the incoming information and summarise it whilst absorbing further detail before writing it down. This more actively engages the brain to understand and paraphrase information (than simply copying) and is significantly beneficial to memory. This concept is very easily applied to school students and the work that they do both in class and at home as prescribed and encouraged by the teacher.

When I later arrived at university, I applied my own version of this theory to note-taking. Write everything down, even if you never revise from your notes. Somehow, everything seemed to travel up my pen, through my arm and into my head, where it miraculously stuck in preparation for the impending examinations. Now, deep into the world of work, the notepad rules as one of the most important pieces of everyday equipment. My colleagues and I all write everything down with extensive note-taking. It almost all sticks and when it doesn’t, what always sticks is where to look up the original note as a reminder. The same applied to university too – at least I knew what I was supposed to know, even if the content hadn’t quite gone in at the time.

The benefits of ‘writing down’ notes however, have never applied to ‘typing up’ notes or for that matter, using digital devices to write them down. There is something about the manual act of writing that engages the brain; to see the words, to kinaesthetically ‘create’ the letters on the page and to cognitively construct the sentences in a form that summarises what is being heard.

As a teacher I witnessed time and time again, that students who wrote notes or summarised detail from a lesson found this profoundly beneficial to their learning and it was evident in their results. Providing varied and plentiful opportunity for students to apply their understanding in a written worksheet and examination-style homework was, and still is crucial to increasing students’ ability to recall concepts and apply them. It is not a high-tech solution to teaching nor a new one, but teaching solutions focusing on the ‘Ed’, rather than the ‘Tech’ still have a huge value in the learning process. Creating them takes time, but great, well-thought through activities make a measurable difference.

For more detail on the original article from NPR, see:

Rob Heathcote. Student, teacher and educational author.
Director, PG Online