Why pen beats keyboard when it comes to learning

by Brett Henebery11 Jun 2015

The research by John R Hayes and Virginia W Berninger from the University of Washington, showed that students produce more ideas when writing by hand, and that hand-written essays are more grammatically correct, coherent and thoughtful.

It begs the question: if longhand is the best way for students to learn and retain information, why are some schools choosing to go paperless?

Tablets and laptops may streamline schools’ communications and provide a convenient multitude of learning tools on a single device, but some academics are insisting that longhand retain its place as a fundamental practice in the classroom.    
 
“Writing things down requires more concentration and deeper processing than typing,” Daniel J Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Canada, told the Financial Times.
 
“Deeper encoding allows for the linking of the concept to other concepts that you have deep in memory. It allows you to see how items on your to-do list are all related to one another.”
 
In addition to questions as to the effectiveness of digital devices as learning tools, health concerns have also been raised about the amount of screen time students should be exposed to.

The bulk of academic research on the subject has warned that any more than two hours a day in front of an electronic screen can harm our cognitive ability.

In an effort to retain students’ longhand – as well as keyboard – skills, some schools are integrating technology with longhand.

One of these schools is Stuartholme School in Toowong, Brisbane, which has a one-to-one device program, rendering the entire school almost paperless. However, its students use a stylus pen and tablet to write notes rather than just typing.

The students complete and submit all their work electronically via their device, and teachers mark student submissions and send feedback to students, all online. 

Other schools around the country, keen to broaden their collaborative networks, are adopting similar programs, causing more and more students to make the switch to digital.

Still, research suggests this isn’t necessarily good for their learning outcomes.

A study published last year titled: ‘The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note-taking’, revealed that students who take notes by longhand are more likely to process and retain conceptual questions compared to those who use a keyboard.

The study showed that while more notes can be taken – and at a quicker speed – students learning can be impaired because typing notes down results in shallower processing.

“Research studies are suggesting that laptop note taking, while faster and more user-friendly, isn't as effective a system for retaining information and processing information,” the report stated.
 
“In fact, three separate studies found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.”
 
However, one of the report’s authors, Pam A Mueller from Princeton University, said even though the benefits of longhand over keyboard typing are clear, reverting back to pen and paper alone is not the answer.

“We think we can’t go back to non-digital tools as a rule. If you don’t like keyboard input, the solution isn’t to abandon technology. It’s to develop higher-quality interfaces,” Mueller told Daily Adventures.

 

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