The Pen is mightier than the e-Sword

A student entering a lecture room today would consider taking notes on a laptop entirely natural.  Why would anyone in their right mind question that activity?  In a learning context that’s what laptops are for, one would imagine. Well, at least partly.   Pause for a moment: Can you think of a reason why such technology could actually be harmful?  No, I don’t simply mean distraction, though that is problem too of course.  Candy crush is a tempting alternative while listening to a lecture on the Hebrew infinitive.  And yes, Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media compete for attention too. But none of these distractions it turns out are the really big threat, which is more hidden and has to do with cognition.  Paradoxically, for the student who is undistracted and concentrates on capturing the entire lecture on a laptop, who could imagine that Candy Crush would actually be more of a help than a hindrance?  Confused?


Two university researchers have conducted some careful experiments comparing note taking using a pen and paper with the corresponding activity using a laptop and keying in the information.   Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer published their surprising results and titled their paper: “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking”.   It seems impossible doesn’t it?  How could anything to do with technology possibly be hindering us in any way?  Worse still, how could old methods be better than new ones?

(If you use a laptop a lot maybe you should skip the next paragraph)


Thirty years ago Neil Postman wrote about the impact of television on Western culture, aptly titling  his book ‘Amusing ourselves to death’.  His thesis was quite simply that television with its bias towards entertainment was in fact a threat to serious social conversations be they political, religious or ones to do with education and learning. This meant that, although television would seem to enjoy success in promoting serious social discourse, this would come at a cost: a brave new society which has learnt to distinguish important talk from the banal via the touchstone of amusement.  Hence Postman’s cynical Television Equation: the more entertaining, the more ‘important’ (perhaps we should consider a Computer Equation: more is better).  Himself a serious analyst of how technology affects the way our minds are shaped, altering the very concepts we use, like ‘truth’ for example, Postman cautioned about un-thought-through employment of the latest wizardry, the unhesitation of plugging it in wherever we can in all spheres of life.  In regard to the computer – the PC was in its infancy back then, and laptops not yet available – he wrote that most of us have accorded this invention the ‘customary mindless inattention – which means we will use it as we are told, without a whimper’. Postman pointed out that ‘…a central thesis of computer technology—that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data—will go unexamined.’  He went on to say that one day ‘it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.’ Our digital culture experiences no twinges of concern when inserting the word “computer” in front of Aristotle’s observation:  ‘memory is the scribe of the soul’.


So what have the university researchers uncovered?  The answer is that what their experiments with students have shown is that the use of a computer to take notes seriously impairs the learning process.  University professor Cindi May expresses it well: “Because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write out their notes by hand.  Moreover, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor…Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops…Mueller and Oppenheimer included a study in which participants were asked to take notes by hand or by laptop, and were told they would be tested on the material in a week.  When participants were given an opportunity to study with their notes before the final assessment, once again those who took longhand notes outperformed laptop participants.”  In their published paper Mueller & Oppenheimer write:  “When participants were unable to study, we did not see a difference between laptop and longhand note taking. We believe this is due to the difficulty of test items after a week’s delay…however, when participants had an opportunity to study, longhand notes again led to superior performance. This is suggestive evidence that longhand notes may have superior external storage as well as superior encoding functions… (Mueller & Oppenheimer, Psychological Science. April 2014). Prof May’s assessment: ”Because longhand notes contain students’ own words and handwriting, they may serve as more effective memory cues by recreating the context (e.g., thought processes, emotions, conclusions) as well as content (e.g., individual facts) from the original learning session”( Prof Cindi May in Scientific American 3rd June 2014).


Surprised?  Flabbergasted?  Perhaps, if you’re under 30.  And there are many more questions that begin to form, some of them educational, some of them philosophical and profound.  If you feel a tinge of concern you might want to read Carr’s article “Is Google making us Stupid”.  But a question I do want to ask is whether we should recover the old fashioned time alone with God and the Bible where we read and engage with Him – with Jesus, and write down notes and thoughts – on paper.  For a few minutes, put away the screens.  Open a book, the book, read, and write. And then pray!