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.
“Something about typing leads to mindless processing. And something about ink and paper prompts students to go beyond recording new information, to process and reframe it.”
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.”