February 29, 2012

Write It To Learn It

In January, I read that Indiana University neuroscientist Karin Harman James was doing research on what differences might occur in learning when students were writing (note-taking etc.) by hand in block letters, using cursive, and keyboarding.

What do you think was the finding of the research?

Most of us have heard that learning occurs in a deeper way when learners write down the information. In our own Writing Center at PCCC, we don't allow our consultants to write on student papers. Their comments, suggestions and corrections need to be put on the paper by the student. We strongly feel that this makes the changes clearer and longer-lasting, so that the writer is able to mentally revisit the session when they return to the next draft of that paper.

Almost all of our students bring in typed papers when it is an assignment for a class. Some students bring handwritten work if they are in the early stage or if the assignment is more of the homework variety than a formal assignment.

Everyone seems to value the computer/printed version of a paper more, whether this is conscious or not, especially before we read the words. It "looks better."

James' research has led her to make efforts to raise awareness about the role of handwriting in the learning process. This comes at a time when many K-12 schools nationwide try to decide whether handwriting instruction, particularly cursive, still fits within the curriculum.

Her research used brain imaging technology to document how significant changes in the brain occur depending on whether preschool-age children learn letters by printing or typing. The findings point to the formation of a literary system used for reading -- that is, when letters are printed.

"These kinds of findings point to there being something really important about printing and potentially also about cursive," said James, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "These are both fine motor skills, so they might be equally important in understanding cognitive development in children."
She is also beginning research involving cursive writing with college students. Preliminary results seem to indicate that they remembered information better one week later when they transcribed a paragraph in cursive, compared to printing it (by hand) or using a keyboard.
Still, the research has not yet determined whether the benefits of teaching cursive outweigh the time spent in students learning it, or the benefits of keyboarding, such as easier revision, access to spelling and grammar checking.

She presented her finding at a summit sponsored by the educational materials company Zaner-Bloser. That's a name I remember from my own days of learning cursive. The company points to a link between handwriting and literacy development. Their "vertical manuscript" has children learning "to write the same letters they see in books, strengthening the reading-writing connection. Learning to print focuses the students' attention on the distinctive shapes and features of letters, leading to improved letter recognition."

Of course, when the word processor first began to enter the classroom, there were many debates about whether or not tools like spelling and grammar checking were good or bad. I heard that "They will learn the rules by seeing the corrections" and "Teachers will get better first drafts" as often as I heard teachers say that "Students will learn nothing if the computer does it for them."  I'm not sure that that particular debate has ever been closed, although the word processor is a very solid part of the education process.

Until we have more definitive results, is it safe to conclude that writing down what you are learning - using any method - helps the learner retain information better than just hearing it and trying to remember? 


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