"Should I handwrite my study notes or type them?"

People ask me this question often and I think there’s not enough advice out there to help YOU decide what’s best for YOUR situation and YOUR learning.

Last week I explained four different note taking methods in detail. Check out that post here – How to Choose the Best Note Taking Method.

This post breaks down the old argument of handwritten vs. typed notes; giving you the information for both sides to help you make the right decision.


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Advantages of Handwritten Note Taking

1). Research shows students have a stronger understanding of their material if they take notes by hand rather than type them.

Note taking by hand IS slower than typing.

Most people could type every word of a lecture but it’s not possible to handwrite every word. It would also waste a lot of time handwriting verbatim notes from a textbook.

Research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer shows this reduction in speed is a good thing. Two groups of students were given text to take notes on, one group handwritten and the other typed. The groups were then tested on their understanding of the material and the group that wrote their notes by hand scored higher.

Rather than trying to write down every word, handwriting students spend the time listening and digesting the material, and summarising it so they can capture the key points. It is easy for typed notetaking to become mindless and shallow in understanding.

2). Gives you practice for hand writing during exams.

It can be hard to write solidly for a few hours if you’re not used to it and, without practice, your handwriting might be too messy for your examiner to understand.

3). Notes can be taken anywhere as long as you have paper.

This is great if you study in lots of different places and don’t always have access to a computer.

4). Handwritten notes allow for creativity and personalisation

Handwriting notes allows for more creativity. It is easier to create non-linear notes as you can quickly add boxes, mindmaps, notes in the margin, little diagrams…etc. Handwritten notes can feel more personal and it can be rewarding to create attractive notes.

5). Handwriting notes may reduce distractions

Typing your notes also gives you access to check Facebook, look up the restaurant you’ve been meaning to try or respond to emails. If you’re easily distracted, handwritten notes might work for you.

Advantages of Typed Note Taking

1). You can add points to your notes easily.

Whereas handwritten notes can get messy when you add extra points, typed notes can easily be edited.

2). Typed notes are neat.

If you can’t even understand your own handwriting, then typed notes may be better. Also, making too mistakes in handwritten notes can detract from their value and even make some students start their notes again… a big waste of time.

3). Typed notes can be searched easily.

If you’re trying to remember a reference or want to find points for an essay, typed notes allow you to search for ideas quickly.

4). Typing notes is quicker than handwriting.

For most people it’s possible to type almost as fast as a lecturer speaks so you can take down more notes. Though you must take care not to fall into the trap of writing verbatim notes. Instead try to write in your own words as much as possible as this improves understanding.

5). You can add diagrams/images by inserting them into your document.

Instead of drawing your own versions of textbook diagrams you can take a photo or screenshot online material and insert them into your typed notes.

6). Typed notes can reduce fear of making mistakes

You may not be comfortable writing in your own words straight away in case you misunderstand the material. Typing notes may help as you can go back and edit and check for understanding.

7). Computers are a big part of university courses

Most courses have a large online element with online activities, material, videos and presentations. It could be argued that if you are carrying your laptop/tablet round with you anyway why not use it to take notes too?

9). Typed notes are all in one place and can be made accessible on any device.

By uploading your notes onto Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote…etc. you can access your notes on any device with an Internet connection. I use to email my notes to myself after every session so I could always access them. This also meant all my notes from every module were easy to access and there was no need to carry them around with me

10). You can transform typed notes into additional study materials

Once you have your base notes you can turn your notes into revision material such as quizzes and printable flashcards.

How do you choose a format?

You may be thinking, “thanks Chloe, you’ve just confused me now with all these arguments”.

But now I’m going to help you make the decision on which format to use and when.

Here are some questions you need to consider.

How is your course delivered?

Is your course centred around online learning from textbooks or face-to-face or online lectures/tutorials?

As discussed above, the problem with typed lecture notes is the tendency to write verbatim. If the temptation to write everything word-for-word is too strong for you then perhaps hand write these notes. However, if you’re happy to review your notes later and rewrite them in your own words then typing them might be ok.

Typed notes should be fine for independent study as you have the time to put effort into forming your own sentences and conclusions.

Are you taking notes from textbooks or from online resources?

Without an additional monitor, typing notes with your screen also displaying the material is difficult. If you have physical textbooks you could annotate and highlight the book then summarise the points by hand or using a computer.

What subject are you studying?

The course you are studying will impact how you take notes. If you’re studying a science-based course you may be required to learn a lot of diagrams. Unless you’re a computer whizz, this might make handwritten notes a better option.

If your course is concept and term heavy, then your notes need to be clear and searchable. Typed notes can look neater and they’re easily searchable to find key words.

If your subject has a lot of formulas then, without special software, handwriting might be the way forward.

If you have to complete activities that will eventually become part of your assignments you might want to type your notes to save time.

What will you need your notes for?

Does your course have an exam?

If you have an exam then your notes need to be tailored to make revision easier. They have to be clear and sum up the key points and details. Your notes must be good enough to start revising from or use as a base to create further revision notes. Typed notes can be repurposed easily and turned into quizzes or printable flashcards. But some people only feel like the materials are getting into their heads if they hand write. Without an exam, the pressure for note taking can reduce slightly so go with your preference.

Does your course have a written exam?

If you have to handwrite yours exams then you must make sure you practice your handwriting – so it’s legible but also so you get used to writing for hours. We hand write so little in our lives today that we can get out of practice. When I typed most of my notes I made sure to switch to handwritten ones for creating revision mindmaps and for writing answers to practice papers.

Ok, so now what?

Once you’ve answered these questions you may find one format jumps out as you as the most appropriate. But for some people that isn’t the case.

I personally recommend using a blended method and making both handwritten and typed notes.

Where you need to record your own thoughts quickly then typing is the way to go as your fingers can move as fast as your brain. For example, when you’re writing an essay, it makes sense to use a computer. But for recording and understanding information you want your brain to move faster than your fingers to help you filter the key information. So handwriting on these occasions might be better.

I know some of you may not like the idea of using both formats. At first I hated the idea of mixing note taking as I thought it would look messy and would be difficult to keep all in one place.

But then I realised how valuable it is to tailor your note taking to each situation.

So I began scanning all my handwritten notes AND printing my typed notes. I used one physical folder per module and put all my notes in order. There were some handwritten notes I’d made studying at a café, typed notes at my desk, hand drawn mindmaps, typed quizzes, scribbled essay plans and printed reflections.

Being able to revise from so many different formats was so helpful and broke up my learning so it was more interesting.

If you use the Cornell note taking method then you could create a quick table template for both printed and typed notes. So even though some will be drawn and the others typed they’ll look similar.

You can also rework your notes. You may prefer to type your notes in class as its faster, then turn them into mindmaps or outlines after. Or you may prefer to handwrite your notes but create typed quizzes at the end of each section.

Just because you’ve written notes one way for a long time doesn’t mean you can’t try another.

I typed my notes for a few years then set myself a challenge to handwrite them for 30 days. It was hard at first but I completely changed my mind. My preference now is still to handwrite most of my notes but I add in typed elements. Try out some new methods and formats and you might surprise yourself and find a way of notetaking that’s more effective.

Now finally, here’s some top tips for both handwritten and typed notes.

I also wrote a must-read post on note taking mistakes to avoid – 13 Note Taking Mistakes Successful Students Don’t Make.

Tips for Handwritten Note Taking

  • Give your notes titles and page numbers. You should be able to put your notes back in order if they become mixed up
  • Draw diagrams in pencil first so you can correct them...
  • ...but try not to be a perfectionist about diagrams. Just make them clear and easy to read
  • If it's likely you'll need to go back and add more information only make notes on one side of the paper
  • Or leave gaps between concepts/ideas to add more later
  • Create your own abbreviations and symbols to speed up your writing e.g. > for increase or w for with or w/o for without...etc.
  • Use different coloured pens or highlighters to enhance certain elements e.g. key words, authors and dates, examples, strengths, limitations, quotes...etc.
  • Save your notes somewhere. I almost left all my notes on a bus once! If you have access to a scanner, use this. Or you can quickly scan paper using a smartphone or tablet. I use Scannable by Evernote which is available for iOS devices. For Android devices there's CamScanner. Both are free are so useful for organising all your paper. 

Tips for Typed Note Taking

  • Similarly to handwritten notes, give each page a title and page number. You could also add a header or footer with your module title and any other helpful information
  • Keep fonts and styles consistent and use them to your advantage e.g. black for standard text, green for your own reflections, purple for activities, pink for examples and case studies...etc.
  • Print your notes to use during essay and exam preparation
  • Save your notes often. Either save onto an external hard drive, upload to cloud software such as Google Drive or Dropbox, or simply email them to yourself at the end of each session.


How to Actually START Your Essay

Workbook + video training to take you from procrastination and overwhelm to understanding your question and mapping out your ideas with momentum. Easier, faster essay writing (and higher grades) await.

Start Your Essay

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