Pen and paper 'beats computers for retaining knowledge'

Survey of students across 10 countries suggests handwriting and printed books have advantages over digital materials

February 13, 2017
Writing notes
Source: iStock

University students find it easier to retain information when using books and handwriting notes rather than computers, according to a survey of European and Asian students.

A study of almost 650 students from 10 countries found that while computers often dominate teaching and learning at universities, students still see the benefits of reading and writing with paper. 

The research, Students’ use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading, surveyed undergraduates and postgraduates in Italy, the UK, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, China, Portugal, Finland and Germany.

Jane Vincent, guest teacher and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of media and communications and author of the study, said that the students were fairly consistent in their feedback.

“One of the reasons some students favour handwriting is the role it plays in learning and retaining knowledge,” she said. "Many of the students in our study found [that] making handwritten notes leads to greater retention of data than if it is typed.”

Students also experienced difficulties in writing mathematic and scientific formulas and graphs on computers, the study found. But they noted that searching for information, correcting typed material, spell checking and legibility were all advantages of using a computer.

Dr Vincent, who conducted the research while she was based at the University of Surrey, said: “Despite problems with posture and tired eyes, reading and writing online is usually more practical in university settings.”

The research also picked up some national differences when it came to the preferences of students.

For example, Chinese students tended to favour writing by hand because they felt they were able to better express themselves in the strokes of handwritten characters than in coded form on the computer, while Italian students cited paper’s “sensorial” qualities.

“I like very much to enjoy the scent of a book through the fragrance of the paper,” said one Italian student.

Meanwhile, younger students in Russia generally preferred reading and typing on screen as they were less accustomed to handwriting and reading printed books. Students from Bulgaria and Finland also preferred computers over paper.

Overall most students favoured using a mix of paper and computers.

The study will form the basis of a chapter in the forthcoming book Smartphone Culture, edited by Dr Vincent and Leslie Haddon, visiting lecturer at LSE’s department of media and communications.

ellie.bothwell@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (3)

Just because people say that they work better one way or another does not mean that they actually do. People are notoriously mistaken about their performance on tasks such as typing versus handwriting and reading off a screen versus reading off of paper. Surveys in this area are virtually useless: you need to actually test if performance really is better one way or the other. Thirty years ago, people who wrote for a living could often be heard say such things as "Oh, I could never compose directly on a computer: I have to write it out longhand first and then type it up". The same people now routinely compose on computers. In tests of retention of information, any empirical study ought to take the long view. Retention in memory of facts needed for an examination coming up in a few weeks might well be better with handwritten notes, but if one wants those notes to be findable and useable several decades later, digital text is measurably better. Gabriel Egan
It's a few years since I wrote a paper around this subject but I believe the principles still apply that the act of handwriting notes improves the short term retention and understanding of the material. This then should be followed up by regular review of the material. The first stage of that review could be transcribing the handwritten notes into an electronic format. Here are some references I used previously. I'm sure there are other more recent ones. Brazeau, G.a., 2006. Handouts in the classroom: is note taking a lost skill? American journal of pharmaceutical education, 70(2), 38. Clerehan, R., 1995. Taking it down: Notetaking practices of L1 and L2 students. English for specific purposes, 14(2), 137–155. Dunkel, P.A., 1988. Academic Listening and Lecture Notetaking for Ll / L2 Students : The Need to Investigate the Utility of the Axioms of Good Notetaking. TESL Canada Journal, 6(1), 11-26. Kobayashi, K., 2005. What limits the encoding effect of note-taking? A meta-analytic examination. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 30(2), 242-262. Makany, T., Kemp, J. & Dror, I.E., 2009. Optimising the use of notetaking as an external cognitive aid for increasing learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(4), 619-635.
It's all about habituation! Habituate on paper or print and your addiction to either trumps everything else. The corrolary is true of electronics . Neither has addictive properties intrinsic to it ..., just familiarity out of regularity and the hook is on !

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