Is the pen mightier than the keyboard for students?

Laptop-use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution, and they may be doing more harm than good

The “chalk and talk” approach to education in Irish schools and colleges has long since disappeared. In any arena of learning you are greeted now by banks of electronic devices, all purportedly quicker and faster at processing information. The pen and paper approach may now seem Stone Age but are expensive technological devices really the best educational aides for students?

Students Enrichment Services, an Irish study skills company which researches how students learn, released its annual survey last month. One counter-intuitive finding was that over half of Irish secondary education students with access to iPad/tablets in the classroom said the devices interfere with their studies. Furthermore, 73 per cent of those students using tablets prefer studying from a textbook.

Typical student comments in the survey range from “preferred the touch of a textbook” to the feeling “you study better from a textbook”. While the rate of increase of tablets in the classroom grows each year, students surveyed echo the results of the most recent research into the differences between notes taking in class and taking notes on a keyboard.

US educational psychologists Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer published a study last year which found college students who wrote their notes on paper actually learn more. Their study showed those used tablets always took more notes, but it was pen and paper students who scored better on conceptual understanding of the material – and in how to apply and integrate it in exam conditions.


As Mueller and Oppenheimer have it: “We found students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that 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.”

Mueller and Oppenheimer – who professed to have been surprised by the results of the study – believe taking notes by hand requires a different type of cognitive processing. Students actively scan the material presented to them, editing it as they go along and applying their own structure. Because writing by hand is slower and more difficult over a long class than simply typing on a screen, students have to listen, digest and summarise. Their notes showed they wrote in the margins, had question marks after certain sentences, underlined key concepts and generally worked the material as they heard it.

By contrast, those taking notes on screen do not have to process its meaning; not much thought was given to content as long as every word was recorded verbatim.

“Laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution,” they say. “Despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”

Internet connectivity can also be problematic. If students using laptops have internet access in the classroom, studies show they spend up to 40 per cent of class time using apps, reading emails and updating social media profiles. When asked about this later, students said they were “distracted” by their internet access with messages popping up on screen every few minutes.

Dr Vincent Mulrooney, former educational psychologist with the Department of Education, says "the report might have a very positive effect if it questions assumptions about the value of information technology in education. Some might assume a computer is a better way of note-taking than longhand and should be used in all circumstances. The study suggests such is not the case and at an intuitive level that seems to make sense."

Mulrooney cautions: “The critical factor could hinge on what the student does with the notes taken during the lecture. It might be that students would be more likely to edit and summarise notes taken on a computer than notes taken in longhand. Research on this could provide a better understanding of what actually happens between a lecture and an examination. The outcome could be that students could make more informed choices on when to use a computer and when to use longhand and how to process notes that have been taken to enhance examination results.”

Vice-principal for teaching and learning at UCD's college of science, Dr Carmel Hensey, says "I have found there is a dramatic fall off in note-taking – of any kind – among students. In some instances students arrange among themselves that one person takes notes on a laptop which can be easily be distributed among the group. I do think students are at a disadvantage not taking notes, although I have not thought too much about whether typing or physically writing notes makes a difference.

“Technology is moving so quickly. For example there are apps that record a lecture and they sync the audio to where you write or draw on your iPad, which means note-taking in the traditional sense will be less prevalent. In UCD we use an online system (Blackboard) to manage and deliver course content to students; they typically have access to PowerPoint slides, supporting documentation, papers from the primary literature, laboratory protocols, in advance of class. With information so accessible now (lecture notes and textbooks online, lectures via iTunes, not to mention Wikipedia or just googling it!), the nature of education is changing and there’s an increased emphasis on active learning and engaging students during class.”

Emphasis on active learning Hensey believes the Mueller and Oppenheimer study “makes a good point about students losing out on the learning process because of less organising and synthesising of notes when transcribing verbatim a lecture using a laptop. But as the use of stylus pens for tablets increases I think there will be somewhat of a reversion to students making their own handwritten annotations to lecture material and students will be better able to recreate the context of the lecture with apps such as Evernote”.

At post-primary level, Niall Hare is the principal at Kishoge Community College in Lucan – the first secondary school to operate in a formal partnership with Educate Together. In Junior Cycle, Hare says there is 100 per cent use of iPads among students. "It is not compulsory by any means for all Junior Cycle students to have iPads but we have seen a full and total take-up by the student population. The emphasis here is on 'active learning' and the feeling is that students enjoy the enhanced features they get on E-books downloaded to their iPads. For example, they're learning about Pompeii and they can see videos related to what happened there.

“However, all students revert to copybooks for note-taking. The positive aspects of technology for the Junior cycle is that students can be sent reminders through special apps each evening that they have homework to do and if necessary can enter an electronic conversation with their teachers if they are particularly stuck on a question. There is a bigger picture here of technological aides in education.”

A Department of Education and Skills spokesperson says "the findings of the (Mueller and Oppenheimer) study are interesting and merit further consideration".

“With regard to note-taking, the challenge is to see how students can best be enabled to digest, synthesise and summarise information as they use media such as iPads and tablets. This will be a skill which students will require not just in their current learning but in future learning and for their engagement with the workplace. In line with this the focus of educational reforms such as the new Junior Cycle is to enhance learners’ ability to use ICT (Information and Communications Technology) as a vehicle for learning.”

And on a more general level, Dr Wray Herbert is an award-winning psychology and science journalist and author who contributes to Newsweek and others on education. He believes the experiment provided preliminary evidence that laptops might be harmful to academic performance.

“I think longhand notes not only lead to higher quality learning in the first place; they are also a superior strategy for storing new learning for later study. Or, quite possibly, these two effects interact for greater academic performance overall,” he wrote about the Mueller- Oppenheimer study.

“The scientists had an additional, intriguing finding. At one point they told some of the laptop users explicitly not to simply transcribe the lectures word-by-word. This intervention failed completely. The laptop users still made verbatim notes, which diminished their learning. Apparently there is something about typing that leads to mindless processing. And there is something about ink and paper that prompts students to go beyond merely hearing and recording new information – and instead to process and reframe information in their own words, with or without the aid of asterisks and checks and arrows.”

Not just students, but all of us, aren’t using basic pen and paper skills these days. A study by online stationer Docmail found the average adult only writes something with a pen and paper every 41 days.

In his recent book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, neuroscientist Daniel Levithin speaks of the "neural addiction" we now have to using electronic devices to run our lives and our thoughts. Among other findings he showed if we are trying to concentrate on a task (such as learning in the classroom) and an email is sitting unread in our inbox, our effectiveness in the task in hand is reduced.

Irish schools continue to embrace the use of iPads/tablets in the classroom – the last available figure from 2013 shows that tablets were used by 20,000 Irish students across 100 secondary schools. Apart from the financial stress for parents spending up to €500 on these devices (and peer pressure to have the newest, bells and whistles model), the current evidence they may actually not be the most efficacious way of learning, or at least of taking notes, should surely give educators pause for thought.

Note-taking: pen and paper versus the laptop

“The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand over Laptop Note Taking” by Pam Mueller (Princeton University) and Daniel Oppenheimer (University of California, Los Angeles) was first published in Psychological Science in April 2014.

Participants in the study were Princeton University students and the material used was a series of TED talks.

Half of the 66 students in the study used laptops to take notes; the other half wrote their notes using pen and paper. Both sets of students were then tested on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material and their ability to synthesise and generalise the information.

The study found students who used laptops consistently took more notes than the “old fashioned” group. However, those students who wrote out their notes by hand using pen and paper were found, in all cases, to have a stronger conceptual understanding of the material presented to them and were a lot more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who took notes with their laptops.