College Students Retain Info Better When Writing With Pen and Paper Than When Using Computers

by Ellie Bothwell

Survey of students across 10 countries suggests handwriting and printed books have advantages over digital materials

University students find it easier to retain information when using books and handwriting notes rather than computers, according to a survey of European and Asian students.

A study of almost 650 students from 10 countries found that while computers often dominate teaching and learning at universities, students still see the benefits of reading and writing with paper.

The research, Students’ use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading, surveyed undergraduates and postgraduates in Italy, the UK, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, China, Portugal, Finland and Germany.

Jane Vincent, guest teacher and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of media and communications and author of the study, said that the students were fairly consistent in their feedback.

“One of the reasons some students favor handwriting is the role it plays in learning and retaining knowledge,” she said. “Many of the students in our study found [that] making handwritten notes leads to greater retention of data than if it is typed.”

Students also experienced difficulties in writing mathematic and scientific formulas and graphs on computers, the study found. But they noted that searching for information, correcting typed material, spell checking and legibility were all advantages of using a computer.

Dr. Vincent, who conducted the research while she was based at the University of Surrey, said: “Despite problems with posture and tired eyes, reading and writing online is usually more practical in university settings.”

The research also picked up some national differences when it came to the preferences of students.

For example, Chinese students tended to favor writing by hand because they felt they were able to better express themselves in the strokes of handwritten characters than in coded form on the computer, while Italian students cited paper’s “sensorial” qualities.

“I like very much to enjoy the scent of a book through the fragrance of the paper,” said one Italian student.

Meanwhile, younger students in Russia generally preferred reading and typing on screen as they were less accustomed to handwriting and reading printed books. Students from Bulgaria and Finland also preferred computers over paper.

Overall most students favored using a mix of paper and computers.

The study will form the basis of a chapter in the forthcoming book Smartphone Culture, edited by Dr. Vincent and Leslie Haddon, visiting lecturer at LSE’s department of media and communications.

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