Can handwriting survive the digital age? Professor of psychology weighs in

A student writing by hand
Writing by hand forces pupils to process the material and rephrase it in their own words. Photo credit: Getty Images

From Sunday Morning of RNZ

As handwriting disappears from our society, research shows that putting pen to paper is good for our brains.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences.

He told Jim Mora on Sunday Morning that typing was not better or worse than longhand, but led to different outcomes. 

"It's not that writing is better than using a keyboard, but writing changes the way you think."

He said one of the advantages of handwriting was that it slowed you down: "If I'm typing what a teacher is saying, I can type verbatim what they say, which means I don't really have to listen and understand what's being said, I just have to type word for word... and it'll get into the record.

"But if I'm taking notes by hand, I can't write that quickly, and that forces me to listen to what the person is saying and rephrase it in my own words. 

"That means that I understood the material, I thought about the material, I figured out what is the best way to describe the material - and all of those things are helpful for learning."

Research showed that the fine motor skills required to map letters to paper were helpful for literacy, he said.

"As opposed to typing, where you press a button and there's no relationship between the button press and the visual manifestation of the letter that you'll later have to read."

Oppenheimer said it was easier to write ideas quickly on computer and edit one's writing, but this meant people did not have to think through what they were writing. 

Alternatively, writing by hand was more laborious to edit, so required deeper and more insightful thinking, he said.

The precision of thought required when handwriting also lead to using a wider vocabulary, as it gave people more time to consult their "mental lexicon".

"This means that people who type tend to have less variance in vocabulary. They tend to reuse the same words over and over; they tend to be using simpler words that are quicker to bring to mind."

Conversely, he said, people who wrote by hand used "a greater number and diversity of words, more complex and nuanced words that are better able to convey complex ideas", he said. 

Despite an online thesaurus being readily available when students wrote on a computer, that also opened them up to other distractions.

Oppenheimer said research did not show a great difference between the benefits of printing versus longhand - also known as cursive - although the latter tended to be more legible.

"It's not that computers are bad - they're good for some functions. But if your goal is to comprehend the material, then handwriting seems to be the best way to do that."

Was there a link between the decline of handwriting and classroom behaviour? 

Any activity that instilled discipline - from learning to write carefully to karate - could help students learn to focus more effectively and then may help with classroom behaviour, he said.

However, the research was unclear whether handwriting was necessarily better than other activities that instil discipline.

And it would be a mistake to ban computers in the classroom altogether, he said.

Despite the potential problems and distractions, there was no escaping from the advances in technology, such as generative AI. 

When they left school, students were going to be expected to use tools such as ChatGPT in jobs and would be at a competitive disadvantage if they were unable to do so.

"A person who uses AI effectively can be much more efficient, much more productive than a person who can't, and why would an employer prefer someone who is less productive?"

There were certain lessons and lectures when he himself asked students to put their laptops away, and other times when he insisted they use them for assignments, and to use certain techniques and software.

The decline in handwriting was not the primary cause of a decline in literacy, he said. 

"I think that one reason that kids are not learning to read is that they're not reading as much."

Oppenheimer gave the example of when his university students lined up outside his office, to ask for feedback on their progress. Earlier in his career, they would have had a book and be reading, he said - now, they were on their phones. The same could be said for people on long-haul flights.

"One of the best ways to get good at reading is to practise reading... and to the extent that fewer people are reading, that would explain why people are becoming less literate. In a way that's a lot simpler than blaming it on not handwriting."

There were always concerns raised when new technologies emerged, he said - besides, people could be reading eBooks on their phones. 

So, can handwriting survive the digital era?

"Every time new technologies come out, it takes a while for society to adjust to their optimal use.

"We have the internet and social media... and that caught America - and probably New Zealand -... by storm and changed culture in some fundamental ways, and in some ways that are very clearly negative. But that was true of almost every new technology that has come out in the last century.

"But what happens is that eventually people learn how to use it, they learn how to adapt. Society and culture shift to accommodate the new technologies." 

As a university professor, he had noticed students being more deliberate about what they used their phones for and was also seeing parents becoming more thoughtful about when and how they let their children have and use phones.

"We may hit a period where writing is less common and less prevalent, but I do think that there will always be a place for writing, and that once we as a society figure out what that place is, there will be a value afforded to writing."