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Importance of taking handwritten notes in the classroom

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Writing engages different parts of the brain. Photo by Aaron Burden - Unsplash

By: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

Students in the past did not have the luxury of having PowerPoint slides supplied by the lecturers. Recorded lectures, YouTube educational videos, or related online educational tools and resources were beyond their imaginations.

Prof. Dr. Mohammad Tariqur Rahman

They had to keep hand-written notes while listening to the lectures. Later after going back to the library, they complete the learning cycle by reading the book or preparing complete hand-written notes, if necessary.

Before the exam, they would revise handwritten notes as well as the books, mostly photocopies of the relevant pages from the books.

Things are different now. Our children have digital resources such as PowerPoint slides, ebooks, videos, and whatnot.

The majority of them don’t bother to take notes during the lectures. Why would they? It is “obligatory” for the lecturers to provide notes and resources even before the lectures are delivered. Students have the right to complain if the lecture notes or materials are missing before the lectures. And, authority would make it a point too.

Given those differences between past and present in teaching and learning, are there any differences in comprehension, long-term remembrance of what they learn as well as overall development of the brain?

In fact, handwriting is different from typing using a keyboard or voice typing. The difference is subtle yet very important, especially in terms of engaging brain functions. In typing, an alphabet is drafted by hitting a key using a finger. In writing on the other hand, a pen is moved on a piece of paper based on the shapes of the alphabet as it is recorded in the memory.

So the difference is not the pen or keyboard, but how the fingers connect the brain during typing or writing.

For example, writing notes during class lectures can activate both the right and left hemispheres as well as the frontal and rear parts of the brain as it involves recalling the right vocabulary, tactile sensation between hands and pen, and visual and auditory functions. Indeed all these functions initiate complex interactions in different areas of the brain.

Such complex interactions and connectivity are pivotal to the development of brain functions. This can be explained by the theory of underconnectivity that describes the disorder in autism where frontal and more posterior (rear) cortical parts of the brain show lower anatomical and functional connectivity.

Unlike in a regular brain, distinct brain areas tend to work independently of each other in autism. For example, the volunteers with autism, compared to their healthy counterparts, showed more activation in half of their brain, mostly the right hemisphere in remembering a given task.

Again, in the act of remembrance, the posterior or rear part of the autistic volunteers’ brain showed more activation compared to the frontal area.

Perhaps because of this localized activation of the brain, people with autism have difficulty in processing more complex information resulting from their inability to initiate complex interactions. Hence their ability to perform a single task involving details.

The complex interactions between the frontal and rear areas of the brain engaging both hemispheres are not only important for remembering what someone learns. This is also important for other important functions of the brain such as selecting relevant information and ignoring irrelevant information. Such brain activity is mostly activated by the frontal area of the brain and accomplished after receiving brain signals associated with sensory perception, memory, and emotions.

In short, holistic brain development and its function require connectivity between different areas of the brain in both hemispheres.

In a similar perspective, art therapy is a widely accepted method of treatment known to improve attention, cognition, mood, working memory, and executive function for persons with dementia or other forms of brain-related disorders.

According to the well-known old Kidlin’s Law: If one writes down a problem clearly, it is half solved. This law perhaps meant to emphasize identifying the problem “clearly” and not more on “writing”.

Nevertheless, drafting handwritten notes while listening to a lecture could provide complex activation of different areas of the brain as it involves attention, tactile sensation, as well as visual and auditory engagement.

Students in this digital era can take advantage of having digital resources while helping themselves to develop their brains from a holistic perspective by taking handwritten notes while listening to a lecture which will engage different areas of their brains.

Albeit, the necessary policy could be sought by the academicians to encourage and engage students in writing not only in classrooms but also during their homework.

The author is the Associate Dean (Continuing Education), Faculty of Dentistry, and Associate Member, UM LEAD, Universiti Malaya. He may be reached at tarique@um.edu.my

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