Why pen and paper beats a phone or tablet

Why pen and paper beats a phone or tablet

11 Feb 2019

Writing with a pen is not always better than typing. You obviously would not want to write an essay or dissertation with a pen and paper. But with the pen and paper becoming increasingly rare, scientific studies show that there are many merits to using pen and paper.

Most writing is done by devices

Today, most of our writing is done with digital writing devices (the computer, the mobile phone, rather than writing by hand. The switch from pen and paper to mouse, keyboard and touch screens entails major differences in the haptics of writing, at several distinct but intersecting levels.

Handwriting is by essence a unimanual activity, whereas typewriting is bimanual. Typically, handwriting is also a slower process than typewriting. Moreover, the visual attention of the writer is strongly concentrated during handwriting; the attentional focus of the writer is dedicated to the tip of the pen, while during typewriting the visual attention is detached from the haptic input, namely the process of hitting the keys.

“He was taking notes on his computer, and looked up and realized that he had no idea what the person was actually talking about.”Mueller and Oppenheimer

In three different studies, scientists found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.

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. The findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Learning new things is a complicated process

Learning is a process, and learning effectively requires multiple modalities, such as using a combination of our kinesthetic, tactile, visual, smell, and auditory senses. Learning also requires the skill of recall and review. Learning how to learn and study effectively may sometimes require years of experimentation and practice.

So just because you wrote something down with a pen does not mean you will magically learn or remember. Learning something still requires active effort. But writing down your notes with a pen just makes the learning process a bit more efficient.

In one very interesting study, 65 college students watched one of five TED Talks covering topics that were interesting but not common knowledge. The students, who watched the talks in small groups, were either given laptops (disconnected from Internet) or notebooks, and were told to use whatever strategy they normally used to take notes.

The students then completed three distractor tasks, including a taxing working memory task. A full 30 minutes later, they had to answer questions many based on the lecture they had watched.

The results revealed that while the two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on harder, conceptual questions. The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand.

Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.”

“It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficient,” the researchers wrote.


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