Occasionally in the course of tutoring, I encounter a student whose handwriting is so utterly illegible that I immediately am convinced that he or she is destined to become an M.D. (Word processing has been a godsend for the medical profession!) Whether or not the student ultimately will practice medicine, however, is beside the point. Rather, there is immediate concern that the student is likely incapable of providing an easily legible answer on a test, in-class exercise, or examination paper.
In a similar vein, I see more students ‘printing’, or employing a self-styled, irregular ‘hybrid’ between printing and cursive writing, when asked to take notes or create something without a computer. Few realize that printing takes more strokes and is slower than a flowing longhand.
Equally beside the point would be a denunciation of the current approach by school systems towards teaching cursive writing. Any such criticism won’t solve my students’ problems. Demonstrating the positives associated with ‘pen and paper’, and working with my students, plus connecting them to quality resources (guides/exercises), are of definite advantage both in the short and long terms.
When questionable quality of handwriting is drawn to the attention of a student, often the short response is, “I’ll just use my laptop.” Such technology may be a convenient substitute and viewed as a virtual panacea, but in truth, it Is a tool, and not the solution.
Why? Because taking notes with a laptop versus ‘writing them by hand’, leads to lower absorption of the material taught or lectured on. A 2013 Canadian study established that in a controlled student sampling, laptop users scored 17% lower than did those who recorded their notes by hand *. Besides the risk of distraction when using a laptop (eg. Internet, games, etc.), the student tends not to process (think about) the information, argument, and reasoning as deeply or effectively as occurs when handwriting notes in the first instance. Philosophy Professor Paul Thagard of the University of Waterloo saw the difference 7 years ago, and has banned laptops from lectures ever since.
There is clear need for legible longhand in many situations. I mention the words ‘power failure’ to my students and ‘written answers in class’, as a start, and there are moments when tapping on a smartphone (or lugging around a laptop) is not possible or productive. And there remains the pointed observation, “Well, if I can’t read this, how do you expect your teacher to?!”
My associates at Book Smart Tutors share a continuing concern about under emphasis of the need for our students to have legible handwriting, and we often take pains to exact necessary improvement. When our students are made aware of the advantages (and the downside of ‘illegibility’), they respond and ask for help, and we are there to assist.