The shift online gives new significance to the pen v laptop debate

My research inspired laptop bans in classrooms around the world, but we need nuance in our thinking about using technology, says Danny Oppenheimer

February 18, 2021
Students sitting in lecture with girl thinking at laptop
Source: Alamy (edited)

People are often surprised when they learn I do not ban laptops in my classroom. After all, it was my lab that identified the “longhand advantage” – the finding that students learn better when taking notes using pen and paper than when typing on a laptop.

That research inspired countless laptop bans in classrooms around the world, and I’m well aware that laptops can be a distraction (both for the students using them and for nearby peers who can see their screens). They can interfere with how well calibrated students are when evaluating their own learning, and laptop note taking doesn’t support conceptual understanding as well as pen-and-paper note taking.

THE Campus resource: Training students to read and take notes in online classes

Given the recent shift to online, it seemed like a prime opportunity to explore why I not only allow laptops in my classes but sometimes even require them.

The tools we use change the way we think and behave. It isn’t that certain tools are good or bad but rather that different tools encourage people to use different cognitive and behavioural strategies to achieve their goals, and those strategies often lead to different outcomes.  

For example, if a teacher uses vocabulary a student doesn’t understand, a student with a laptop might Google it, while a student without a laptop might try to infer meaning from context. The former action guarantees that the student knows the term (although the student may miss other content in the lecture while searching for and reading the definition), while the latter may help the student become more proficient at applying contextual cues (although the student may get it wrong, leading to conceptual misunderstandings about the lecture).

As teachers, we should be nuanced in our thinking about when and how to use different technologies in the classroom. Whether the effect of a technology is helpful, harmful or neutral depends significantly on the goals and structure of a particular lesson plan. To decide whether to allow laptops for a certain exercise, we must consider the reasons for the longhand advantage and think about how that interacts with the purpose of a given pedagogical exercise.

Unless you’ve been trained in shorthand, handwriting is relatively slow. Using pen and paper, it is almost impossible to write down a lecture word for word; we can’t write quickly enough. So, when taking notes on paper, students are forced to listen to and understand a lecture, identify the key points that need to be recorded and summarise what is being said in their own words. That kind of thinking supports deep conceptual learning.

THE Campus resource: Developing academic writing skills to boost student confidence

But people can type faster than they can write by hand. Students can often type quickly enough to take down what a speaker says more or less verbatim. Mindless transcription is mentally easy; no thought required. Decades of research have shown that people are cognitive misers; we don’t like to exert more mental effort than we must. So, when people are typing their notes, they tend not to engage in the deeper thinking that supports conceptual learning.

Based on that logic, it’s clear there are times when laptops will undermine the goals of a lesson and should probably be discouraged. When the goal is to encourage deeper thinking, taking notes on laptops may be unhelpful. Further, laptop note taking may impede lessons that rely on discussion, because they encourage a transcription rather than an engagement mindset. And all of the above is not to mention the ample opportunities for distraction that the internet and social media provide.

Nonetheless, if it is particularly important that students have a complete, verbatim record of what is being said (perhaps because they are taking notes for an absent friend, or because the lesson relies on exact quotes or precise definitions), then laptop note taking would lead to better outcomes. Moreover, environments that are noisy or full of distractions may prevent the type of deeper thinking that leads to the longhand advantage; under such conditions (or if students are tired, unmotivated or unengaged), the longhand advantage may not emerge, leaving students without enhanced conceptual learning but with less complete notes than laptop note taking would have provided.

Lessons that involve equations, diagrams or other spatial relations that don’t translate well to word processing may be more difficult to document on a laptop. On the flip side, laptops allow for easier editing, enabling students to correct mistakes and link ideas in non-linear lesson structures. Indeed, laptops even allow for collaborative note taking, in which multiple students can work on a single online document (using Google Docs, for example) and edit each other’s notes for accuracy and completeness in real time.

Note, though, that all of the above advantages and disadvantages may not generalise to neuro-atypical populations; there is simply not enough research on such populations to know.

Neither medium – laptop nor pen-and-paper – dominates the other. Both have their strengths and their weaknesses. With the shift to online, it’s more important than ever for teachers to think about their goals, and how a lesson achieves those goals, and then adopt or eschew technologies accordingly.

Danny Oppenheimer is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University jointly appointed in psychology and decision sciences. He studies judgement, decision-making, metacognition, learning and causal reasoning, and applies his findings to domains such as charitable giving, consumer behaviour and how to trick students into buying him ice cream.


Print headline: The pen is not always mightier than the laptop

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