Learning From Paper, Learning From Screens: Is One Better than the Other?
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Learning From Paper, Learning From Screens: Is One Better than the Other?
Niels V.


Things are changing fast. You’ve probably noticed by now. From reading the morning paper to buying groceries to hailing a cab, pretty much any activity you can name can be done online now.

No surprise, then, that the same is happening with the classroom experience. Computers are making their way into classrooms, more and more reading assignments are being done on screens instead of paper, and entirely new ways of learning are being opened up.

With so much changing in such a short period of time, education researchers are being forced to play catchup. Psychologists and learning specialists are only starting to understand the advantages and potential pitfalls of the digital age’s new ways of teaching and learning that are spreading through schools.

Meanwhile, educators and parents are left with an important question: what’s the right balance of paper and screens in the learning process?

What’s the Right Balance?

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers. Some will tell you that the way to go is to eliminate paper entirely where possible – after all, paper is inefficient and not very friendly to the environment. Others hold the opposite point of view – that fancy technology is a distraction that doesn’t really add anything to the classroom experience.

However, as more research is starting to come in on the advantages and disadvantages of paper vs. digital media in education, it’s starting to look like finding a happy medium might be the way to go. Both paper and screens have advantages, and the optimal approach may end up mixing both tools strategically.

Paper Still Has an Important Role in Reading and Note Taking

Let’s just admit it right off the bat: paper isn’t cool. In fact, with everything going digital, pen and paper can seem downright archaic.

But research comparing traditional paper-based study strategies with twenty-first century alternatives has found that paper actually has the edge over its younger, hipper siblings in some areas.

To see part of why this is the case, remember that pen and paper gives you something a keyboard doesn’t: total control over what you write down. Just a blank page and whatever words, drawings or (if your handwriting is anything like mine) incoherent scribblings you want to create.

This freedom makes paper conducive to writing things down in shorthand and summarizing concepts with diagrams – in other words, to note taking. Think about it this way: when you’re listening to a long lecture and taking notes on paper, you’re more likely to reflect on the ideas you’re hearing, extract the most important information, and jot down the important takeaways from what you’ve heard. Maybe you’ll even draw a few pictures to help you remember and understand certain concepts.

Now what about when you’re taking notes on a laptop? A laptop gives you less flexibility in what you write, but it also gives you an edge in efficiency – using a keyboard, you can write more and write it faster. For students listening to lectures and taking notes, this means they’re simply more likely to write down what they’re hearing word-for-word rather than condensing the essence down into pencil-and-paper shorthand.

This difference in approaches – condensing ideas and jotting them down on paper in shorthand vs. copying words down using a keyboard – can lead to differences in understanding. Pen-and-paper note taking encourages students to actively think about what they’re hearing rather than just copy it into a laptop.

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With this in mind, it makes sense that in 2014, psychologists from Princeton University and University of California, Los Angeles published a series of studies showing that participants who took notes by hand were better at answering conceptual questions than those who took notes on laptops. Interpreting their findings, the researchers suggested that “laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.”

Note taking isn’t the only part of the learning process where paper may have some tried-and-true advantages. Some research has suggested that when it comes to reading, there are also good arguments to stick with print over screens.

For example, a 2013 study involving 72 Norwegian tenth graders showed that students who read a printed version of a text scored higher on a subsequent reading comprehension test than students who read the text as a PDF. Another study published in 2011 showed that participants preferred reading printed text and found it harder to regulate their study time when reading from a computer screen.

It’s worth keeping in mind that researchers aren’t sure exactly why people seem to prefer reading old-fashioned printed text. In fact, it’s quite possible that as technology becomes more sophisticated, some of the differences between reading on screens and reading on paper will disappear.

One difference that seems less likely to disappear, though, is the distraction factor. Anyone who’s ever been in a classroom full of students with laptops is likely to be aware of this obvious drawback of digital note taking. Actually, anyone who’s ever worked on a computer for that matter knows that it’s easy to get distracted.

For students, the problem goes something like this: yes, you should be taking notes on your chemistry lecture – but you could also be checking Facebook, or playing a game, or looking at cute pictures of cats. That kind of sounds like more fun, doesn’t it?

The distraction factor has real consequences for how students learn. One study showed that students who engaged in “laptop multitasking” while learning scored lower when asked to take a test. To make matters worse, the students sitting near them also scored lower, suggesting that laptops can be distracting for more than just the people using them!

Although more studies are needed to better understand how and why technology sometimes seems to interfere in the learning process, the research that has been done gives teachers and parents some important information to go on: for note taking and for reading, pen and paper can have real advantages over keyboards and screens.

Technology Makes New Ways of Learning Possible

It can be tempting to look at these studies and conclude that technology just doesn’t have a place in the classroom. But there’s a bigger picture too.

While the technologies we currently have appear not to be well suited to tasks like note taking where traditional pen and paper suffice, digital media can still open up entirely new learning techniques that are impossible in a world of print.

Interactive teaching tools like videos or even games can help students understand new concepts in more depth. The internet also gives students access to a wider range of resources they can use to gain a broader perspective on material.

And of course, there are some situations where keyboards have clearly won the battle against pen and paper. While paper is good for more conceptual activities like note taking, asking students to write lengthy essays by hand instead of typing is likely just creating unnecessary work for all involved.

Likewise, technology has given students more options for how they can study at home. Distance learning is becoming more popular, and it’s now common for teachers to use online quizzes and homework assignments that give students real-time feedback.

Both paper and screens, then, seem to have important roles in the twenty-first century classroom. Putting all the information we have right now together, the big picture is that finding the right mix of paper and computers depends on the specifics of the situation. While the research suggests that pen and paper facilitate note taking and reading, computers open up new and interactive teaching methods that can add another dimension to the learning process.