In the past decade, classrooms have begun to shift away from textbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils and toward electronic media. In college lecture halls, increasing numbers of students are taking notes on laptops, and in high school classrooms, teachers are incorporating computers and tablets into their lesson plans. While there are advantages to electronic media, a growing number of studies show that some educational goals are better achieved using traditional pen and paper methods. Thus, rather than rushing to digitize learning, teachers and administrators should take a step back, consider their desired educational outcomes and assess the extent to which digital media or paper supports the goals of a particular learning experience.
In this paper I will review a few significant ways in which paper and digital media differ, and how those differences affect learning. While the examples below are not exhaustive, I hope that they will be useful in guiding educators regarding how to think about which media best support their classroom goals.
One obvious way in which paper and digital media differ is in the ease of accessing external materials. On laptops, students have the ability to go online, which enables them to access source material, supplemental information and online tutorials. This can help students better understand lessons, and allows for a broader range of classroom activities than would otherwise be possible. However, students with laptops can also access email, social media, online games and other sources of distraction. While in theory students could resist these diversions, studies have shown that most have tremendous difficulty doing so, and that these sorts of competing demands on students’ attention can undermine information processing (c.f. Atchley & Lane, 2014). As such, lessons that require focused attention may be better served using paper, which is devoid of distractions, while lessons that require students to reference external sources or rapidly sift through large quantities of information may benefit from laptop use.
A second way in which laptops and handwriting differ is the speed at which information can be recorded. Most people can type faster than they can write by hand. As such, using laptops to take notes has obvious efficiency advantages, allowing students to transcribe a larger percentage of the material that is covered in a lesson. However, this speed advantage tends to lead students to transcribe content word-for-word, and this can affect the manner in which students process information, and has consequences for their learning. For example, because students cannot handwrite fast enough to take verbatim notes when using paper, they are forced to understand and rephrase the content in their own words. This requires students to actually think about the material, rather than merely recording it, and by engaging with the material more deeply, students experience more effective learning and consequently perform better on subsequent exams, especially exams involving conceptual understanding (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). In other words, while taking notes on a laptop typically results in a more complete record of a lesson’s content, handwritten notes better facilitate learning and often lead to a deeper understanding of the material.
Paper and digital media also tend to encourage different ways of thinking about the information presented. Students using paper tend to adopt a more concrete mindset (i.e., thinking about how things are done), while those on computers are more likely to adopt an abstract mindset (i.e., thinking about why things are done; Kaufman & Flanagan, 2016). This has several implications. Most obviously, paper better supports students who are trying to learn or answer questions about concrete details while computers better support students who are trying to gain a broader or more general overview of the material. Moreover, students thinking at different levels of abstraction focus on different features of texts and therefore accomplish different learning goals. For example, in proofreading, a concrete mindset helps identify typos and low-level grammatical errors, while an abstract mindset helps identify flaws in logical flow or consistency of argument. Consequently, people are better at catching typos when using paper (Wharton-Michael, 2008), but may be better at spotting content errors on computers.
In addition, for reasons that aren’t fully understood, students who learn from paper rather than digital media have a better sense of how well they have learned classroom materials. As a result, they are able to allocate more time to the most challenging material in a lesson—material that they (accurately) realize that they have not learned effectively, and thus need to study further. This more efficient allocation of study time can lead to better learning outcomes in situations where students are able to set their own study schedules (Ackerman et al., 2011). Importantly, not only do students’ beliefs about how well they understand things lead to more effective study strategies, but such beliefs can also affect motivation (Finn, 2015). Students tend to work harder and study longer when they feel as though they are successfully mastering material. Since paper improves how well calibrated people are regarding what they have learned, lessons that rely on self-assessment of mastery may be more effective with paper.
There are many other ways in which paper and digital media differ with respect to learning. For example, research has shown that reading on a computer screen is more fatiguing than reading paper (Dillon, McKnight and Richardson, 1988). This suggests that paper may be particularly effective for longer lessons, especially when there are limited opportunities for students to rest or take breaks.
Perhaps because of the fatiguing nature of reading from a screen, people tend to prefer reading and learning from paper (Annand, 2008; Spencer, 2006), which could lead to motivational differences and an increased willingness to engage with learning materials. Indeed, online forums about laptop use in classrooms are full of people expressing this preference, with comments such as “I found taking hand notes to be much more enjoyable. I wasn’t able to stray onto [social media] or my email, and felt a better connection to the class. Laptops form a physical barrier between the professor and student, and I can recall many a time trying to hide behind the screen of my [laptop]” (Atlantic, 2014).
However, it is worth noting that as computer screens continue to improve in quality, and students become more comfortable and adept with digital media, these differences may diminish. Indeed, some researchers have found differences by age-cohort, suggesting that preferences for paper learning are particularly prevalent in generations that were raised without computers (Eshet-Alkalai & Geri, 2007). Thus, it is important for teachers to consider the age and culture of the student population when determining how to fit paper and digital media into lesson plans.
In sum, paper and digital media require and engender different ways of thinking and therefore produce different educational outcomes. Educators who are considering the adoption of digital media in their classrooms should think through how these differences will interact with their learning goals and lesson plans. Crucially, paper and digital media are not mutually exclusive; both can provide tremendous value in the classroom. As such, educators should not be trying to determine which medium to adopt, but rather when and how each medium can support classroom objectives.