May 13, 2016 by Iván

Quantity vs. Quality

At EIL we love technology. Both, my partner Boris and I, try to get the most of it in order to maximise our productivity and, therefore, run the company we love the most efficient possible way.

Despite the fact that I’m a tech-nerd and, thus, take advantage of a wide range of features from different apps and services out there, I still feel reluctant to rely 100% on them because, at the same time, I am also in love with some outdated analogical (or not digital) way to perform different actions, and I’m not talking about the recent blooming of cassette tapes.

Closer to our field, and in a fast paced city like Hong Kong, note taking is an every-day action that not only students perform, but it’s also a necessary task every adult nowadays needs to cope with. There are tons of solutions out there which claim to make our life easier when it comes to writing down our daily life’s needs.

However, does this principle apply when it’s necessary to take notes in a learning environment ?

In my humble opinion: NO.

Why ? Because taking notes when listening to a teacher / professor / instructor / lecturer … involves much more than just reproducing with letters what the educator is telling.

Typing vs Handwriting seems to be a romantic (and predetermined) lost war for people like me. The Finnish educational system has recently dropped cursive writing calligraphy teaching (not printed letters calligraphy though) in favour of typing, which I find a tremendous step forward… as long as students are always aware of the pros and cons of every of both writing styles.

Currently, there are many ongoing discussions with people defending both sides of the coin. What I find unquestionable is the fact that among the typing benefits – not only writing is much faster, but it also boosts mental agility, as it allows reading and writing at the same time. Therefore, it is possible to collect an astonishing amount of words, which is impossible to do by only writing longhand. Of course, fast typing has a lot of benefits in determined environments, such as office tasks. Nevertheless, what we need to ask ourselves when it comes to learning is whether writing down notes is about quantity or quality: what happens when slow paced and out of date hand writing method is chosen to take notes?

As stated in this Business Insider article, a study of the University of California (The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking) has raised the fact that while typing in class our brain just concentrates on catching every word which is being said, when we handwrite our brain is not only processing, but also selecting and formatting the most relevant information needed. Thus, note taking increases the effectiveness of information processing because it mainly implies a high degree of concentration that typing doesn’t.

And you know what ? There is another research from the University of Central Florida (The Positive Effects of Writing Practice on Integration of Foreign Words in Memory) about benefits of hand writing on retaining vocabulary when learning a foreign language.

I always have been trying to encourage my students to write down notes in a notebook, keep them organised and check them every single time they forget something. From my experience, the more they follow this process the faster they will move forward. Students who often take pictures and / or type during class, sooner or later (with some remarkable exceptions to prove this rule), fall behind because they tend to retain less information than those who have been writing down. Some of them realise this and end up buying a notebook to start writing longhand.

The most important fact is not losing perspective when approaching to technology in general terms. Balance is a very important word that we need to keep in mind in this regard. Tech provides us with awesome tools but cannot fully replace (yet) the way we deal with our daily lives. Organic and physical approaches are vital and necessary to keep us connected to our environment in order to have a healthy development as human beings.