When you think about learning, typically you envision students at their desks putting pencil to paper, or listening to a teacher in the front of the classroom. Today along with pencil and paper, there are a variety of tools that support learning and literacy, many of which include digital technology.
I am one of those people who prints everything then reads with a highlighter and pen in hand to write notes all over my printouts. I seem to struggle absorbing any information without this process, a process I have used throughout my years at school and later university. I thought this was just me, perhaps from the old school fraternity and not something that many young digital natives would also find beneficial. However more and more research is showing that my behavior is not only more common, but more interestingly a better way to learn and absorb information.
Recent research and local experience shows that there are learning and retention limitations to using digital technology as a study tool in the classroom when compared to pencil and paper. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a recent international report, Students, Computers and Learning1. Commenting on the report the education chief of the organisation, Andreas Schleicher, stated that ‘the reality is that technology is doing more harm than good in our schools today.2’
Findings from the worldwide survey show that ‘students who used computers moderately at school had somewhat better learning outcomes than students who used computers rarely; but students who used computers very frequently at school did a lot worse, even after accounting for the students’ socio-economic status.’ Consequently, countries which have invested heavily in education technology have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in results for reading, mathematics or science.
In March 2016, the headmaster of Sydney Grammar School – one of Australia’s top-performing schools, Dr John Vallance, condemned the ‘scandalous waste of money’ being spent by Australian schools on digital technology for the classroom3. Even if they give access to an astonishingly wide range of resources, laptops and tablets are accused of distracting students from their learning tasks.
At Sydney Grammar, students cannot bring laptops to school, even in the senior years, and have access to computers in the school computer lab. Students are also required to handwrite their assignments and essays until Year 10. Dr Vallance has studied the difference between handwritten and computer-typed tasks among boys in Year 3 and Year 5. His studies found that ‘in creative writing tasks, they find it much easier to write by hand, to put their ideas down on a piece of paper, than they do with a keyboard.’
Other studies indicate that handwriting, at any age, improves cognitive and learning processes. “When children composed text by hand, they not only consistently produced more words more quickly than they did on a keyboard, but expressed more ideas. And brain imaging in the oldest subjects suggested that the connection between writing and idea generation went even further. When these children were asked to come up with ideas for a composition, the ones with better handwriting exhibited greater neural activation in areas associated with working memory — and increased overall activation in the reading and writing networks.4’
Several studies on the outcomes of reading and studying on paper versus digital from the United States and South Korea have been conducted. The results show that 60 out of 66 students preferred paper to a computer when studying, and that using paper for note-taking improved the quality of student reports5. Moreover, 54 per cent of students reported that print textbooks provided better learning outcomes than electronic texts6, with students who read print books showing better reading comprehension7.
In the end, I remain happiest with my highlighter and pen madly underlining and scribbling notes in the margins when I am trying to retain information and it seems there are a lot more of me than I thought. Whether from handwriting and reading, to comprehension and retention—print and paper deliver proven benefits and continue to play an essential role in education and development – hoorah for the power of print.
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