Read This: The Pen is Mightier Than the Laptop

I love Educational Technology, but it has its limits. There are many places where technology can serve to enhance how students learn, but there are just as many where it can impair learning. A student in a dance class can benefit from watching a video recording of their performance, but they can just as easily hone their craft by watching themselves in a mirror. A humanities student can watch video interviews with primary sources, but usually will derive more benefit from looking the historical source in the eye and asking them questions. No matter where we look in our classrooms and educational practice, we will eventually find places where technology creates an impediment to learning.

I recently stumbled on “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” a paper by Pam Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer. Their findings show that when it comes to note taking technology may actually hinder a student’s ability to process and engage with new information.

“even when distractions are controlled for,
laptop use might impair performance by affecting the
manner and quality of in-class note taking.”

There sample size was small, only 65 students, but their methodology points to what may be an underlying truth: students will retain more information and perform better on tests when they take notes using pen and paper. They had the participants watch lectures and either take notes using laptops (not connected to the internet), or by hand. By removing internet from the equation they seem to have limited one of the most common sources of distraction when taking notes on a device, and thus they may have leveled the playing field to place where a meaningful comparison can take place. After completing their note taking, the students completed some thinking tasks before they were asked a series of questions that forced them to recall information from the lecture. Overall, students did better when they took longhand notes.

They found that when compared with computer notes, longhand notes:

  • contained fewer words
  • had less overlap with lecture (less verbatim transcription)
  • people who wrote more notes did better on the questions
  • people with less verbatim notes performed better on the questions

They found that “laptops may harm academic performance even when used as intended. Participants using laptops are more likely to take lengthier transcription-like notes with greater verbatim overlap with the lecture. Although taking more notes, thereby having more information, is beneficial, mindless transcription seems to offset the benefit of the increased content, at least when there is no opportunity for review. ” [emphasis is mine]

I highly recommend reading the paper (link above), and that you think twice before rushing students into taking notes using digital tools. Students need to learn note taking skills in general, because regardless of the tool they use, writing down the lecturer’s words is never a sound practice. Laptops and devices provide students with the ability to write at a far faster pace than pen and paper, but in so doing they create opportunities for students to use poor note taking practices. The authors close with a profound thought that I could not agree with more:

“synthesizing and summarizing content rather than verbatim transcription can serve as a desirable difficulty toward improved educational outcomes… laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

As educators, we should use a similar litmus test whenever we turn to technological tools. We must consider the alternative to the tool we plan to use, and the tradeoffs of making the switch. If we honestly assess the value of the new tool versus the old, and take into considerations a serious list of benefits and costs, we may find that pen is indeed mightier.

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