Know it by heart: Laptop vs. Longhand

I am old school – I take notes by hand.  You might say I’m a little OCD about sermon prep:  

My old-fashioned ritual begins on Monday with copying the text – by hand – NRSV down one side of the paper, New Jerusalem Bible on the other, side by side.  (As taught 25 years ago by preaching professor John McClure, now of Vanderbilt)  

Then I take notes, longhand, from commentaries.  Only then do I pull out the laptop for the actual sermon writing.  I used to think it was because I was a kinesthetic learner, and I’ve also guiltily pondered the waste of paper, but the latest research insists something more lasting happens when we engage our hands to write.  When we move our hands, we more easily learn it by heart.

One seminary professor, Rev. Dr. Brad Wigger, of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, mandates a “low-tech” classroom.  No screens or keyboards.  And he’s on to something, according to researchers Pam Mueller of Princeton and Daniel Oppenheimer of UCLA.  They say, in an article by Wray Herbert ( that

“…..Laptops, despite their plusses …… lead to a shallower kind of cognitive processing, and to lower quality learning…..”  Aha!  Maybe there is something to this old-fashioned OCD-ness.  

“Longhand notes not only lead to higher quality learning in the first place; they are also a superior strategy for storing new learning for later study.”

“Apparently there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information — and instead to process and reframe information in their own words.” (from the article)

And so in my Christian tradition, we hear from the prophet Jeremiah, as God says,  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  

And then in Greek scriptures, Paul writes to the Corinthians, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. 

Old fashioned note-taking, old fashioned writing – It goes directly to the heart, in ways that laptop writing does not.  Want to know something by heart?  Want to communicate something from your heart to someone else’s?  Write it down.

Our brains are still wired for kinesthetic, touching, holding, tangible, face-to-face, words and books – The electronic versions have their place, but they are not a perfect substitute for who we are today, evolutionarily speaking.  God does not “upload” information, or love, or grace, or mercy, or forgiveness – No, it is “written on our hearts.”  By hand.



5 thoughts on “Know it by heart: Laptop vs. Longhand

  1. I’ve been referencing this same research with my students for a few years now: if you really want to figure out what you need and want to say–what really matters to you–write by hand first. I love the sermon process you shared!

    An aside–I’ve read somewhere that writing by hand not only clarifies and helps us own our thoughts and feelings, but it can also speed the rate at which the physical body heals from an injury. I wish I could remember where I have read it, but athletes and veterans who journal by hand about the physical healing process have been shown to experience accelerated healing.

  2. Wow – How very, very cool, about the healing! And connect what we understand of psychic/soul healing as well – Since now we know THAT is a physical reality……And Marie, I know in the past few months I saw another article about writing by hand – Send me stuff if you come across it –

  3. I’ve discovered writing vs. typing my counseling progress notes results in much deeping undersanding of how I might help a client with my counseling. My clients seem to appreciate this as they feel more comfortable with searching for their own deeping understanding. We seem to be much more on the same page. And with hand writing, there are no automatic spell checks popping up to distract me.

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