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How I got a CS degree with pen and paper (and why I’m doing it again) – Forrest Brazeal

A version of this post firstappearedattimothydavidbuck.com.

HN Submission/Discussion

My Problem

I showed up at college in the fall of 2010 with two pairs of shoes, a pronounced case of post-homeschooled social awkwardness and one pesky problem: although I wanted to major in computer science, I had never learned to touch-type.

This wasn’t such a big deal when I was actually doing computer programming homework, since people who can code at typing speed are pretty rare. But typing notes in my lecture classes quickly proved to be impossible. I’d be surrounded by rows of people furiously clacking away on their laptops while the teacher flipped through PowerPoint slides like playing cards, and I’d fall way behind just hunting for my spacebar.

My “Solution”

So I decided that the only way to keep up was to go old-school and take notes by hand. I bought a five-subject notebook at the campus store and showed up to my next class with a fistful of pencils, ready for action.

I could write faster than I could type, but without knowing shorthand, this method still wasn’t fast enough to allow me to perfectly transcribe every lecture slide. So I was forced to write smarter, not faster. I’d listen carefully to the lecture while paraphrasing anything that seemed important, in real time, using as few words as possible.

My Discovery

I quickly noticed several benefits to this low-tech approach.

As my stack of notebooks soared, so did my grades. Soon I was dragging extra paper into every class, including computer labs where my notebooks were the only dead trees anywhere in sight – leading to the slightly goofy spectacle of a computer science major scribbling down Java or C code snippets with a #2 pencil. But other than the realization that I had found a study method that worked, I didnt think too much about what I was doing.

It’s Not Just Me…

I had no idea that an emerging body of research was backing up my decidedly non-scientific findings. A widely-publicized Princeton/UCLA study called The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboardrecently foundthat even when students used their laptopssolelyfor taking class notes, their ability to retain, synthesize and apply new material lagged far behind that of students who did the mental heavy lifting of jotting down notes by hand. (The cognitive mechanisms proposed to explain these findings are still a little speculative, but if youre interested, you can read Scientific Americans friendly summaryhere.) And thats beforetaking into account theestimated 42%of college students who check social media or give into other laptop distractions during class, withpredictable effectson their learning experience.

…Its You, Too

So heres my one low-tech study tip for success: Whenever possible, take class notes by hand, on physical paper.

I dont care how fast you can type; what happens in your brain when you put a pen to paper is still going to be a greater learning aid than fifty tabs in OneNote. And Im not kidding when I say that this little trick might do more for your grades than coffee, flashcards and all-night study sessions combined. It certainly worked for me: scrawled notes in hand, I graduated summa cum laude last year in a technical field with which I had very little previous experience.

Ive gotten my words-per-minute count on a computer keyboard (along with my social skills) up to a respectable speed since my freshman days, but when I started grad school lastfall, I made sure to have plenty of scrap paper on hand. If the pen really is mightier than the keyboard, going low-tech in class might be the surest – and smartest – way to level up.

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