Pencils make you smart

pencilsTechnology completely streamlines the studying experience with the University of London International Programmes. The distance in distance learning has been shortened considerably: students from all over the world can hook up face-to-face on Skype or Google Hangouts, share resources on the VLE’s discussion forums, access hundreds of journal articles in the online library with a keyword and mouse click, and access lectures from different universities on iTunesU.

But in a few months time that technology will desert you, facing the exam with just a pen in your hand and blank paper in front of you. Some candidates will be armed with a calculator, but most will rely on a pen to frame their argument through legible handwriting.

hand writingHandwriting. It’s needed less and less in our lives. Maybe you handwrite grocery lists or greeting cards, but it is highly unlikely that – besides exams – you have a reason to write for three hours. And it’s not just a question of stamina. At exam time you have the added pressure of writing legibly to get on the good side of the examiner. It’s not only important that the examiner understands what you writing, but since your handwriting expresses your personality, a neatly-written argument will suggest a neatly thought-out argument.

I have found that it’s important to practice writing out exam questions, so you learn how to pace yourself time-wise, but also to get used to writing for long periods of time. Not only that, but I prefer hand-written notes over typed. I’ve written before about my love for pencils and paper when studying, but I have found that handwriting helps me learn better.

According to Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA:

“students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We [have shown] that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Furthermore, writing by hand strengthens the learning process. The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses, says Anne Mangen from the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre:

“When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback are significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Mind map guidelines

“MindMapGuidlines” by Nicoguaro – Own work. See License.

Using a pencil and paper, my study notes are lines of writing, boxes, arrows, and yes, the odd doodle (but as this article shows even that’s okay). Mind maps are becoming increasingly popular and are a good way of helping the learner understanding a concept, rather than just transcribing its properties on a laptop. Although mind-mapping software is available, for me, the joy of pencil on paper wins out.

Pencils are even becoming trendy. Blogs and podcasts now debate the best wooden pencils for writing, whether they feel too scratchy or buttery on the page, or if they hold their sharp point for long enough. Beyond the multi-national companies like Staedtler and Faber Castell, hipsters seek out pencils from Japan (Tombow Mono 100 or Hi-Uni), the USA (Blackwing 602, beloved of John Steinbeck), or the highly-coveted Swiss-made Caran d’Ache 348.

Pencils can make you smart and hip? It doesn’t get better than that. Oh, except remember you can’t take them into the exam. Ink only on the exam paper!

Mono pencils

Tombow Mono pencils

Michael is studying BSc Politics and International Relations through the University of London International Programmes, with academic direction by LSE.

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