Is handwriting history?

Mrs Kristine Cooke, Director of Information Services

Many teachers ask whether legible, cursive handwriting has gone — or should go — the way of blackboard and chalk. Word-processed text has been the norm in the professional world for more than half a century, whether by typewriter or computer. Even at school, the majority of assessment tasks require students to submit word-processed pieces — except for short answer tests and exams. So what are the cases for, or against, continuing to assess students using handwritten tasks?

The primary problem with handwritten items of assessment is readability. Often, answers are written in such minute script that magnifying glasses are required; others are written in such large and ornate letters that hieroglyphics seem simple by comparison. And then there are those written completely in capital letters (a choice frowned upon, even in email and text correspondence, as it can come across as ‘shouting’).

Handwriting is becoming less essential in the daily lives of young people. A study in the USA revealed that one third of teenagers have never written a letter, and one in ten does not even own a pen (*SOURCE*). In Australia, completing NAPLAN tests online is also being trialled. There is certainly a growing emphasis on, and valid place for, teaching keyboard skills in schools, and producing professional-looking texts is a valuable skill for all students to have.

Outside the school environment, handwritten text is also on the decline. A recent survey found that ‘one in three people had not handwritten anything longer than a shopping list in the previous six months’ (Schwartz, 2017). The number of people who can be seen referring to their shopping lists on mobile phones in supermarkets, or who order their groceries online, suggests that even handwritten shopping lists may soon disappear. Expert graphologist, Adam Brand (2015), wrote that ‘handwriting is an endangered art… less than half of us write every day and don’t send postcards when we go on holiday. However, we do still cherish handwritten notes, postcards and pieces of paper touched by our loved ones — you can’t do that with a text message’.

In this environment, the tendency is for students to believe that computer-generated text is the only option. Many students think keyboarding is faster (and it can be) and allows for the copying of more content (and it can). But to gain understanding of a text or concept, students must become more than pseudo-photocopiers.

Repeated studies reveal that the very fact that handwritten notes are slower to compile is the crucial factor in gaining and retaining knowledge. Handwriting notes assists learning and memory. In three studies of university students taking lecture notes either on laptops or by hand, psychologists, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer (2014), discovered those who took laptop notes fared worse on subsequent examinations than the longhand note-takers, particularly on conceptual questions and complex reasoning. To explore this idea, Mueller and Oppenheimer categorised note-taking into two types: non-generative and generative.

Non-generative note-taking involves copying verbatim, while generative notetaking involves processing skills. Non-generative transcription generally produces greater volume, but there is much less ‘summarising, paraphrasing, concept mapping’ (Doubek, 2016). According to Mueller, students who wrote notes by hand ‘could not get every word down, so they were forced to think about what they were hearing and reframe it in their own words thereby improving their memory’ (in Doubek, 2016). Learning occurs when new concepts are incorporated into an individual’s frame of reference, using their own language. Thus, verbatim laptop notes promote shallower processing. Mueller also notes that students, even when they were specifically instructed not to transcribe literal notes, were generally unable to overcome that instinct. What was especially interesting was the discovery that the more notes were copied down verbatim, the worse the test performance, even on simple recall tests.

In Mueller and Oppenheimer’s third study, the students were also given the opportunity to review notes between the lecture and the test. This was designed to test the hypothesis that, if students have time to study notes from their laptops, the fact that they typed more extensive notes than those taking notes in longhand, would lead to better performance. However, students taking notes by hand still performed better, which is ‘suggestive evidence that longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions’ (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014).

What students often find counter-intuitive is that having to work more slowly when taking notes by hand is what makes their notes decidedly more useful in the long run. This would suggest that the more accurate term for taking notes in class, and even from research texts, should be note-making; and it is the ‘making’ that is significant. When a student makes notes, the thinking that occurs, and the creativity and imagination employed, will integrate what has to be learned into the individual’s mind-map, and aid retention. With this in mind, it not surprising that J. K. Rowling handwrote the drafts for her Harry Potter books and even uses detailed, hand-drawn spreadsheets to map out complicated plot and character scenarios (see an example in Nguyen, 2015).

In 2019, all students entering Girls Grammar at Year 7 will be required to have a personal device that supports a stylus. Not only does this facility simplify the procedure for students to input mathematical symbols and formulas, but also it encourages students to create and capture their own cursive notes, diagrams and sketches. This ‘digital inking’ (Dean, 2014 and Mantgem, 2008) not only personalises learning and promotes active thinking, learning and problem solving. Additionally, beyond the screen, those notes created by the student on paper take on much greater power and significance.

Students should take pride in the personal value they add to what a teacher conveys in class. Notebooks are not redundant. Those trips to the stationary stores are not old-fashioned. Pens and pencils still have a place. And, perhaps, the more cursive writing undertaken by a student, the easier it will be for a teacher to read handwritten tests.



Brand, A. (2015). The “vanishing art of handwriting” on National Handwriting Day. Thomas Cook Group

Dean, B. A. C. (2014). “How does the use of the tablet PC contribute to teaching and learning goals in the secondary classroom?” Master of Philosophy, University of Queensland

Doubek, J. (2016). “Attention students: put your laptops away”. NPR

Fisher, D.F. (1975). “Reading and visual search”. Memory and Cognition, 3, 188-196

Harding, E. (2015). “Texting teens are killing the art of letter writing: a third have never put pen to paper due to the rise of online messaging”. Daily Mail, 20th October

Kolers, P.A. & Perkins, D.N. (1975). “Spatial and ordinal components of form perception and literacy”. Cognitive Psychology, 7, 228-267

Larson, K. (2004). “The science of word recognition or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bouma”.  Advanced Reading Technology, Microsoft Corporation.

Mantgem, M. V. (2008). Tablet PCs in K-12 education. Washington: International Society for Teaching Technology in Education

Mueller, P. A. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). “The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking”. Psychological science, 25: 6

Nguyen, N. (2016). This is how J. K. Rowling planned every plot in Harry Potter.

Schwartz, S. (2017). “Writing on the wall”. Australian Financial Review – Review, 17th November, 3R

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