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Is the Pen Mightier than the Keyboard?

Remember those hand cramps during lectures? They might actually be worth the pain in the long run.


Image from Stock Snap

What words pop in your mind when you hear the word “school”? Pen? Pencil? Paper? iPad? The first three are everywhere, but the fourth… not so much. Yet, this last word does shed light on the occurring revolution in today’s classroom where everything seems to be going digital. Already prevalent in the social world, technology is now invading classrooms, replacing the old pen and paper approach in teaching. By 2009, following Apple’s release of the first Personal Digital Assistants in 1993, 97 percent of classrooms had one or more computers, and 93 percent of them had Internet access. (1) It’s normal for college students to take their laptops everywhere, but not as much for first graders to each have their own iPads. With this radical realization, there are proponents on both ends of the debate about the impact of technology in the educational environment, questioning whether digital devices should replace the old pen and paper. Is the pen mightier than the keyboard?

Image from Pexels

According to the survey of the Students Enrichment Services, an Irish study skills company, there were contradicting answers as over half of them replied that iPads/tablets interfere with their studies, while 73 percent of them using tablets prefer studying from a physical textbook. (2) Despite such preferences, the usage of technology in the classroom continues to increase as many are transitioning from taking notes by hand to typing on a keyboard. In a study done by US educational psychologists Pam Mueller and David Oppenheimer, it showed that pen and paper students scored better on conceptual understanding of the material compared to those who took notes on their tablets. “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 re framing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.” (3) But why?

It all goes back to your simple human brain. More specifically, factors relating the method of note taking are most prevalent when dealing with memorization. A study, that was contributed by hundreds of students from Princeton University and University of California in Los Angeles, discovered that note taking on laptops leads to a reduction in the retainment of information; this was further qualified by the 2014 study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer that demonstrated that handwritten notes provide a way for better understanding. (4) This is due to the varying time span of each method of note-taking where people typing their notes have the tendency to type down as much as they can, focusing on copying the professor’s exact words. On the other hand, students who do longhand notes are more limited since they can only write so much in such little time, leading to the need for selection and precision and benefiting them as they have to process the given information to simpler words. To elaborate, Mueller and Oppenheimer characterized note-taking into two categories: generative and non-generative. Generative implies summaries and paraphrases, whereas non-generative involves verbatim words. Following the process of testing how well students remembered information from TED talks, they uncovered that laptop users could answer memorization questions efficiently, but failed to respond correctly to “conceptual-application” questions due to the fact that they felt the need to copy word for word. Mueller says, “Even when we told people they shouldn’t be taking these verbatim notes, they were not able to overcome that instinct.” (5)

Image from Pexels

Despite these observations, it is doubtful that the advancement of technology in education will be reversed or even slowed down. Surely, taking notes by hand is definitely a pain, especially if the professor is rapping biology terminology, but it might be worth it in the long run. So, the next time you’re in a lecture, try pulling out that mighty pen of yours.

References and Footnotes

  3. Ibid.


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