Gerald Haigh explores the research into the learning effects of Typing vs. Handwriting

The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.


Typing or Handwriting?


The efficiency of the inking facility now available on Surface, with the brilliant Surface pen, is provoking a revival of the old debate about the relative merits of handwriting and typing. Recent Microsoft research brings sound evidence into the issue, questioning some long-held assumptions.

Recently, I sat chatting to my grandson, George, who has just successfully completed the first year of his IT degree course at Coventry University. A true multi-tasker he was working on his laptop as we talked. His dad, sitting by him, watched for a moment and then said,

‘I’m just knocked out by George’s typing skills.’

George neither looked up nor stopped work, but instantly came back with, ‘Thanks to Grandad!’

I was moved and delighted by that. As a quick touch-typist myself, I was so sure George would benefit from having good keyboard skills, that I taught him touch-typing when he was nine, in half-hour sessions before school. It’s a story I included in an article for Merlin John’s ‘Agent4Change’ site last Autumn: The computer keyboard is dead? Long live qwerty! 

The piece refers to, and was inspired by, a blog posted by Tim Bush on in September 2014, based on Microsoft research showing that;

“Typing is still a core skill with significant importance in the workplace, school and socially. This is despite the constant evolution of technology and the expanding ways Britons communicate through it.”

There you are then, done and dusted wouldn’t you say? Scratching away with a pen = bad. Pecking with two fingers on a piece of expensive technology = even worse. Touch-typing, of course = good.


And yet we now have new research for Microsoft by Professor Sharon Oviatt, an international authority on communications interfaces, raising some intriguing questions, which, after all, is what research is supposed to do.

(‘Pen? Keyboard? Voice? Touch? Interfaces prompt different styles of learning – or seriously undermine them.’)

In brief, Professor Oviatt says that the way students choose to interact with their computers – and there’s a wide choice now, including voice, touch, mouse, keyboard, and pen -- makes a difference to their thinking and learning. Some methods help and encourage the cognitive process, some actually get in the way. Typing, for example, can lead to oversimplification of a process which might require sketching out ideas, brainstorming and memorising.

So note taking, in a lesson or lecture may be better done by handwriting, the Oviatt paper says,

‘In a major study by Mueller & Oppenheimer, students who took lecture notes with a pen actively summarised, paraphrased, and concept mapped – generative behaviors that lead to deep encoding, retention, and transfer of learned information. When using a keyboard-based laptop, they typed more words but their notes contained more verbatim copying, which is associated with shallower encoding and conceptual understanding.’

Pen Mightier than the Keyboard for Learning - Research Study from Princeton & UCLA on the benefits of digital inking to Learning. Student retain and learn more when writing longhand notes vs. typing.


Most of us have seen this in action – a group of people in a lecture theatre listening, or around a table discussing, some with laptops, some with pads of paper, some with both. The typists are putting down words, the handwriters are jotting down key quotes, drawing arrows, putting ideas in boxes. Some may be doing both.

And, of course, when it comes to maths and science, subjects replete with symbols and numbers, the story becomes even more interesting.

“….our studies and those of others have repeatedly shown that when students solved science and math problems, performance improved significantly when they used a pen interface rather than a keyboard. Using the pen, they produced 56% more nonlinguistic content (diagrams, symbols, numbers), which led to 9-38% improvement in performance.”

There’s evidence too, that the very act of writing supports learning.

‘Active writing with pen interfaces directly shapes brain functions. In research, children who drew letters, rather than viewing and naming them, performed better at recognizing them visually later. fMRI scans revealed that the motor act of writing increased neural activation in the brain area for visual letter discrimination, which facilitates word comprehension during reading.’

However, we know why many people type on laptops or tablets in meetings and lectures. It’s because the notes are saved, editable and available as required, whereas jottings on paper are highly vulnerable and difficult to file or collate with other material.

Which, of course, is where digital inking comes in. Writing on a tablet with a pen should provide the best of all worlds – producing handwritten and drawn jottings that can be saved, edited and shared. The tablet and pen, though, need to provide high fidelity results. The last thing a teacher wants is to see a student reject the pen in frustration because it is slow to react, or to do exactly what’s needed.

Here, we should quote Wymondham High student Jason Brown who, in the blog on Inking which we posted on 7 May, praises the efficiency of Surface.

“If your handwriting is neat on paper, it’s the same on Surface. The pens are so well calibrated, a hundred percent accurate. And OneNote can convert your handwriting to formatted text if necessary.”

However, the overall message of Professor Oviatt’s research paper is not that users should abandon the keyboard for the pen. Far from it. The key word is choice. A high quality device such as Surface offers an unprecedented degree of choice of input and interaction. The user needs to be aware of this, ready to use the method that’s most appropriate. A summary diagram at the end of the research paper offers ‘A general guideline for interfaces to enhance common learning activities.’

So, for example, to research and collect information, keyboard, mouse and touch may be best. For thinking processes – brainstorming, memorizing, sketching – you’d probably choose the pen. For expressing and consolidating ideas you might use both pen and keyboard, and for collaboration and presenting, the full gamut of touch, pen, keyboard and voice could come into play.

Clearly they’re suggestions – ‘a general guideline’ as the author has it. What’s important is to realise that all those features are available on your Surface, which means that it’s essential to become familiar with them so that you use the considerable power and flexibility of the device to the full.

And where does that leave my evangelical zeal for touch-typing? The answer, of course, is that nothing in Professor Oviatt’s research contradicts the theme of the research mentioned earlier on the value of touch-typing, which, for the foreseeable future, will remain the method of choice for any kind of extended writing. In fact I now feel that any student who is not only adept at choosing and using appropriately among the input methods available on their Surface device, and (icing on the cake) can also touch-type, will be ideally equipped for 21st Century learning and employment.

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