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Study shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on tablet or smartphone Unique, complex information in analog methods likely gives brain more details to trigger memory Research news
- Graduate School of Arts and Sciences / College of Arts and Sciences
- Division for Strategic Public Relations
March 19, 2021
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A study of Japanese university students and recent graduates has revealed that writing on physical paper can lead to more brain activity when remembering the information an hour later. Researchers say that the unique, complex, spatial and tactile information associated with writing by hand on physical paper is likely what leads to improved memory.
“Actually, paper is more advanced and useful compared to electronic documents because paper contains more one-of-a-kind information for stronger memory recall,” said Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai, a neuroscientist at the University of Tokyo and corresponding author of the research recently published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. The research was completed with collaborators from the NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting.
Contrary to the popular belief that digital tools increase efficiency, volunteers who used paper completed the note-taking task about 25% faster than those who used digital tablets or smartphones.
Although volunteers wrote by hand both with pen and paper or stylus and digital tablet, researchers say paper notebooks contain more complex spatial information than digital paper. Physical paper allows for tangible permanence, irregular strokes, and uneven shape, like folded corners. In contrast, digital paper is uniform, has no fixed position when scrolling, and disappears when you close the app.
“Our take-home message is to use paper notebooks for information we need to learn or memorize,” said Sakai.
In the study, a total of 48 volunteers read a fictional conversation between characters discussing their plans for two months in the near future, including 14 different class times, assignment due dates and personal appointments. Researchers performed pre-test analyses to ensure that the volunteers, all 18–29 years old and recruited from university campuses or NTT offices, were equally sorted into three groups based on memory skills, personal preference for digital or analog methods, gender, age and other aspects.
Volunteers then recorded the fictional schedule using a paper datebook and pen, a calendar app on a digital tablet and a stylus, or a calendar app on a large smartphone and a touch-screen keyboard. There was no time limit and volunteers were asked to record the fictional events in the same way as they would for their real-life schedules, without spending extra time to memorize the schedule.
After one hour, including a break and an interference task to distract them from thinking about the calendar, volunteers answered a range of simple (When is the assignment due?) and complex (Which is the earlier due date for the assignments?) multiple choice questions to test their memory of the schedule. While they completed the test, volunteers were inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, which measures blood flow around the brain. This is a technique called functional MRI (fMRI), and increased blood flow observed in a specific region of the brain is a sign of increased neuronal activity in that area.
Participants who used a paper datebook filled in the calendar within about 11 minutes. Tablet users took 14 minutes and smartphone users took about 16 minutes. Volunteers who used analog methods in their personal life were just as slow at using the devices as volunteers who regularly use digital tools, so researchers are confident that the difference in speed was related to memorization or associated encoding in the brain, not just differences in the habitual use of the tools.
Volunteers who used analog methods scored better than other volunteers only on simple test questions. However, researchers say that the brain activation data revealed significant differences.
Volunteers who used paper had more brain activity in areas associated with language, imaginary visualization, and in the hippocampus — an area known to be important for memory and navigation. Researchers say that the activation of the hippocampus indicates that analog methods contain richer spatial details that can be recalled and navigated in the mind’s eye.
“Digital tools have uniform scrolling up and down and standardized arrangement of text and picture size, like on a webpage. But if you remember a physical textbook printed on paper, you can close your eyes and visualize the photo one-third of the way down on the left-side page, as well as the notes you added in the bottom margin,” Sakai explained.
Researchers say that personalizing digital documents by highlighting, underlining, circling, drawing arrows, handwriting color-coded notes in the margins, adding virtual sticky notes, or other types of unique mark-ups can mimic analog-style spatial enrichment that may enhance memory.
Although they have no data from younger volunteers, researchers suspect that the difference in brain activation between analog and digital methods is likely to be stronger in younger people.
“High school students’ brains are still developing and are so much more sensitive than adult brains,” said Sakai.
Although the current research focused on learning and memorization, the researchers encourage using paper for creative pursuits as well.
“It is reasonable that one's creativity will likely become more fruitful if prior knowledge is stored with stronger learning and more precisely retrieved from memory. For art, composing music, or other creative works, I would emphasize the use of paper instead of digital methods,” said Sakai.
This research is a peer-reviewed, experimental study on people published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Funding was provided by the Consortium for Applied Neuroscience at NTT Data Institute of Management Consulting, Inc. The funder was not involved in the study design, collection, analysis, interpretation of data, the writing of the research paper, or the decision to submit it for publication.
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- J Educ Eval Health Prof
No difference in factual or conceptual recall comprehension for tablet, laptop, and handwritten note-taking by medical students in the United States: a survey-based observational study
1 Departments of Emergency Medicine, University of California Irvine, Orange, CA, USA
2 Department of Pathology and Lab Medicine, University of California Irvine, Orange, CA, USA
Megan boysen-osborn, shannon toohey, associated data.
Technological advances are changing how students approach learning. The traditional note-taking methods of longhand writing have been supplemented and replaced by tablets, smartphones, and laptop note-taking. It has been theorized that writing notes by hand requires more complex cognitive processes and may lead to better retention. However, few studies have investigated the use of tablet-based note-taking, which allows the incorporation of typing, drawing, highlights, and media. We therefore sought to confirm the hypothesis that tablet-based note-taking would lead to equivalent or better recall as compared to written note-taking.
We allocated 68 students into longhand, laptop, or tablet note-taking groups, and they watched and took notes on a presentation on which they were assessed for factual and conceptual recall. A second short distractor video was shown, followed by a 30-minute assessment at the University of California, Irvine campus, over a single day period in August 2018. Notes were analyzed for content, supplemental drawings, and other media sources.
No significant difference was found in the factual or conceptual recall scores for tablet, laptop, and handwritten note-taking (P=0.61). The median word count was 131.5 for tablets, 121.0 for handwriting, and 297.0 for laptops (P=0.01). The tablet group had the highest presence of drawing, highlighting, and other media/tools.
In light of conflicting research regarding the best note-taking method, our study showed that longhand note-taking is not superior to tablet or laptop note-taking. This suggests students should be encouraged to pick the note-taking method that appeals most to them. In the future, traditional note-taking may be replaced or supplemented with digital technologies that provide similar efficacy with more convenience.
Technological advances have radically transformed the tools that students use to learn. Laptops, handheld tablets, and smartphones are now everyday adjuncts to learning. In lieu of pen and paper, many students use handheld tablets for note-taking, often paired with a stylus, providing students with the ability to handwrite notes, draw pictures, and add other annotations directly onto digital documents. These technologies may enable learners to process information in innovative and comprehensive ways [ 1 ].
It has previously been hypothesized that longhand writing engages more complex cognitive processes than taking notes by typing. Past studies have reported that laptop typewritten notes tend to be verbatim note-taking that does not engage active learning. The most well-known study on the topic, by Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ], found that longhand note-takers had stronger conceptual understanding and performance than laptop note-takers. As this study pre-dated the widespread use of tablet devices, it did not specifically address note-taking on a tablet with a touch or stylus input. In a study of brain activity using a stylus on a tablet, optimal conditions for learning were found with drawing on the tablet, indicating that the combination of tablet content visualization and handwriting may be beneficial for learning [ 3 ].
Surveys have shown that students prefer learning environments that incorporate technology; students expect higher education institutions to provide blended learning. Students choose to use certain technological devices to meet their own personalized learning needs [ 4 ]. Tablets are unique in their potential for software applications that provide note-taking tools, e-books, flashcards, videos, images, and practice tests [ 5 ]. Studies have shown an increase in performance with the use of tablet-based applications designed to teach anatomy [ 6 ]. However, research on the benefits of tablet-based note-taking is scarce.
The purpose of this study is to determine the effectiveness of digital note-taking strategies on learning comprehension and retention. We sought to re-create part of the study of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ] to evaluate tablet note-taking among a group of students who were comfortable with and commonly used this style of note-taking. We hypothesized that this new tablet-based note-taking would lead to equivalent or better recall as compared to written note-taking.
The study was determined to be exempt by the Institutional Review Board of the University of California Irvine. We recruited students via email to voluntarily take part in the study. On registration for the study, they completed demographic questions regarding their educational background, knowledge of the topic, and preferred note-taking method. Obtaining informed consent from the participants was also exempted.
This was a survey-based observational study that utilized part of the design of the study of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ] to investigate the efficacy of digital note-taking strategies on learning processes and understanding of concepts.
We used the first of 3 experiments in the study of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ] as a framework for our study, which examined the effect of note-taking on a laptop versus handwriting on academic performance [ 3 ]. Demographic information was obtained via email when students registered to complete the study ( Supplement 1 ). In August 2018 at the University of California Irvine on the day of the study, participants gathered in a lecture hall. The students were divided into groups of longhand, laptop, and tablet note-taking based on their note-taking preferences. We felt that the most accurate representation of note-taking efficacy would be achieved by having students use the format with which they were most comfortable. The tablet group was encouraged to use their preference of typing, stylus, or a note-taking application.
The students watched a TED Talk by Kevin Slavin—“How algorithms shape our world” ( https://ed.ted.com/lessons/kevin-slavin-how-algorithms-shape-our-world ) and were advised to take notes using their chosen method in preparation for a quiz afterward. This video was selected because it was one of the videos used in the original study by Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ], and its topic was unfamiliar to students. Unlike the varied videos and quizzes in the study of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ], we used only 1 video and quiz for consistency. The video was played in a lecture hall. We encouraged participants to put away cell phones, stay silent during the study, and avoid surfing the internet or engaging in other tasks while the video was playing. After the video, students were asked to turn in notes by e-mail or paper copy to the study coordinator. Following this intervention, students watched a different TED talk video: “The art of Misdirection” by Apollo Robbins ( https://www.ted.com/talks/apollo_robbins_the_art_of_misdirection ). During this second video, students were advised not to take notes and to simply watch the video without any distractions. The purpose of the second video was to provide a wash-out period and act as a distractor between watching the first video and completing the quiz.
After the completion of the second video, students were given a 10-question short answer assessment about factual and conceptual concepts covered in the “How algorithms shape our world” video ( Supplement 2 ). Students were given 30 minutes to complete the quiz. The quiz was identical to the quiz used in the study of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ] for this video.
There were 51 participants in this study and all were 1st- or 2nd-year medical students at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. We recruited students via email to voluntarily take part in the study. Upon registration for the study, they completed demographic questions including name, educational background (type of degree[s] and title of degree[s]), age (numeric entry), gender, (selection–male, female), and preferred note-taking method (selection–iPad/tablet, pen and paper, laptop).
Quantitative scores of correct answers for each video measuring both factual and conceptual comprehension were the primary variable. Secondary variables included an analysis of the content of student notes, including word count, presence/absence of drawings, highlights, and other media/tools between conditions.
This study used a quiz identical to that administered in the study of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ] for the “How algorithms shape our world” video. The questionnaire consisted of a 10-question short answer assessment about factual and conceptual concepts in the video. While the validity and reliability of the assessment were not measured, we recreated a previously published study and as such used the same videos and assessments. We did not complete additional validation or reliability evaluations for the assessment. Notes were scanned into PDF format, and the word count, presence/absence of drawings, highlights and other media/tools were evaluated manually by 2 independent reviewers with a third reviewer resolving any discrepancies.
To minimize potential sources of bias, 2 blinded reviewers graded each quiz using the same grading scale as Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ], assigning points for each factual and conceptual-based question. A third reviewer resolved any discrepancies in scores.
Based on previous studies, we performed a power analysis utilizing the independent-samples Kruskal-Wallis test. With an 80% power, alpha of 0.05, and assessing a 20% difference in retention between groups, a sample size of at least 17 students was needed in each group. Of note, participants were allowed to self-select their preferred note-taking method to minimize bias from utilizing a less familiar method of note-taking.
Statistical analysis was performed using the 1-sample Kolmogorov-Smirnov test to examine whether the factual score and conceptual score followed a normal distribution. We reported the median and interquartile range (IQR), as the score distribution was not normal. We used the independent-samples Kruskal-Wallis test to compare the score distribution among the study groups. We considered a P-value less than 0.05 to be statistically significant. We used IBM SPSS ver. 26.0 for Windows (IBM Corp., Armonk, NY, USA) for data analysis.
Sixty-eight out of 208 medical students participated in the study, of whom 31 were male and 37 were female. The participants ranged in age from 21 to 29 years old, with an average age of 24 years old.
When asked which note-taking method between tablet, paper, and laptop is better for learning, 59.7% (40/67) participants stated that an iPad/tablet was better, while 40.3% (27/67) said that pen and paper note-taking was better. Furthermore, 68.7% (46/67) said their note-taking method of choice did not differ depending on the type of lecture. Of note, 1 participant did not answer this question (67/68). We asked participants about their preferred note-taking method and reasoning behind it; for their preferred note-taking method, 58 students selected iPad/tablets, 4 chose pen and paper, and 6 chose a combination of both methods. All 68 participants answered this question. Students who chose tablets highlighted the efficiency of consolidating notes in one place, the ease of annotating lecture slides, drawing diagrams, writing with the stylus, the accessibility of online study materials, syncing across devices, customizing/editing notes, and portability. Those who used pen and paper regularly emphasized how handwriting helps with memory and stated that writing content out in one’s own words reinforces concepts, minimizes distractions from technology, and allows students to better engage with the material.
Since students were allowed to self-select into groups depending on their preferred type of note-taking, the groups were slightly uneven, with 42 students in the tablet group, 19 students in the longhand group, and 7 students in the laptop group. While we did not reach the minimum number of students in the laptop group, which was a side effect of this method being uncommon in our population, we still reported these results.
Each student was asked to report how much knowledge related to the topic of the talk they had before the study on a numerical scale from 1, meaning “none at all,” to 5, meaning “expert.” Table 1 shows the distribution of the participants in the study groups and their expressed prior knowledge of the subject.
Distribution of participants and prior knowledge
A numerical scale from 1 to 5 was used with 1 being “none at all” and 5 being “expert.”
Fig. 1 shows the distribution of factual scores among the study groups. The median factual score was 4 (1st quartile: 4, 3rd quartile: 6) in group A, 5 (1st quartile: 4, 3rd quartile: 6) in group B, and 5 (1st quartile: 5, 3rd quartile: 6) in group C. There was no significant difference in the factual recall scores across the tablet, laptop, and handwritten note-taking conditions (P=0.38).
Distribution of factual scores. Note-taking method: (A) tablet, (B) longhand, and (C) laptop.
Fig. 2 shows the distribution of conceptual recall scores among the study groups. The median conceptual score was 2 (1st quartile: 1, 3rd quartile: 3) in group A, 2 (1st quartile: 1, 3rd quartile: 2) in group B, and 3 (1st quartile: 1, 3rd quartile: 4) in group C. There was no significant difference in the conceptual application scores across tablet, laptop, and handwritten note-taking (P=0.61).
Distribution of conceptual scores. Note-taking method: (A) tablet, (B) longhand, and (C) laptop.
The median word count was 131.5 (IQR, 95.0 to 175.0) for tablets, 121.0 (IQR, 96.0 to 159.0) for handwriting, and 297.0 (IQR, 216.0 to 358.0) for laptops (P=0.01). The total number of drawings, highlighting, or other media/tools was 17 (40.5%) in the tablet group, 3 (15.8%) in the handwriting group, and 0 (0.0%) in the laptop group (P=0.029) ( Table 2 ).
Word count and use of other tools
IQR, interquartile range.
Raw response files of students to a quiz were available from Dataset 1 .
There was no significant difference in the factual or conceptual recall scores for tablet, laptop, and handwritten note-taking. The tablet group had the highest presence of drawing, highlighting, and other media/tools.
Results demonstrated that there was no significant difference between tablet devices, laptops, and handwriting in conceptual or factual comprehension, suggesting they are similar in efficacy. It is important to note that the sample size of the laptop students was extremely small and unlikely to generate statistically significant results. Therefore, tablet note-taking can be encouraged as an option for students on par with longhand notes.
Comparison with previous studies
It has been established that taking notes is beneficial for learning by creating new neural connections that enforce memory. This is true for both lecture and textbook reading note-taking [ 7 ]. Students remember more when they take notes and can use that information for testing [ 8 ]. The act of taking notes may be more beneficial than the notes themselves. Note-taking is cognitively demanding because it requires listening intently to the lecture while reading the PowerPoint and writing organized and comprehensible notes [ 9 ]. Passively listening to a lecture does not require this effort. Laptop note-taking offers a faster method of note-taking, which may be beneficial in situations such as video or lecture speaking when students must multitask by hearing new information while simultaneously taking notes. Some researchers have found no difference in performance between laptop and paper note-taking, while Bui et al. showed benefits to laptop note-taking during audio lectures [ 10 ]. This contradicts the findings of Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ], and it has been speculated this may be due to the more complex information given during a lecture compared to a TED Talk, when the speed of note-taking may give students more time to focus on the complicated material being presented [ 11 ].
Digital note-taking encompasses laptops, tablets, and note-taking applications. Across all platforms, the advantage of taking notes digitally are speed, ability to search, and legibility [ 12 ]. Tablets are unique due to the ability to draw, add color, type, handwrite, highlight text, and add images and links to study resources. In a study by Wammes et al. [ 9 ], drawing compared to writing was found to better enhance memory by integrating visual, motor, and semantic processes. Revising notes is quick and easy on a tablet, and studies have shown that students who edit notes will retain more information [ 13 ]. To best incorporate tablet devices, educators should provide lectures in PowerPoint form before class so they can be readily downloaded and annotated. Note-taking applications such as Notability, Evernote, Zoho Notebook, and OneNote are becoming popular tools with their feature-rich and syncing capabilities. Creative learning strategies such as mind mapping and sketching are already taking digital forms and can be incorporated into learning on a tablet [ 14 ]. Students and educators must be educated on digital note-taking strategies so they can best utilize and promote them in the classroom.
The limitations of this study include participant selection. The medical students recruited all had access to tablet devices, which may not be representative of students on average and may have introduced selection bias into our study. Each student chose their preferred method of note-taking instead of random sorting into groups. Confounding variables, such as previous knowledge of the topic, were not considered in the analysis. Additionally, the sample size was limited for the students who used laptops, so the groups were not evenly distributed. Although we calculated the power necessary for the study a priori, a significant difference might be found with a larger sample size.
The University of California Irvine School of Medicine’s iMedEd initiative is a completely digital and interactive curriculum, using digital textbooks, podcasts, audio/video libraries, and online curriculum materials. Each first-year medical student receives an iPad accompanied by a dedicated “on-boarding” session that demonstrates how to use this device for note-taking. Through informal surveys, most medical students embrace the technology and use iPads as their sole note-taking method during medical school. This makes our study population of the University of California Irvine medical students distinctive for their proficiency and comfort using tablet devices. Although the minimum number of students was not reached in the laptop group, the results of this study demonstrate how other schools could benefit from incorporating a digital curriculum.
As stated above, future studies with larger and equal sample sizes, along with better control of biases and confounding factors, should be performed to further determine the benefit of using tablet-based note-taking over handwritten or laptop notes.
Most of the current research compares laptops and handwriting, while there is limited research exploring tablet note-taking capabilities. Although there is conflicting research regarding the best note-taking method, our study showed that longhand note-taking did not give a performance advantage when compared to tablets or laptops. Tablet devices provide a combination of digital functionality with the cognitive benefits of handwriting. As technology continues to be incorporated into the classroom, traditional notebooks can be replaced with digital technologies that provide the same advantages with more convenience.
Conceptualization: WW, RE, AW, MBO, ST. Methodology/formal analysis/validation: WW, RE, AW, MBO, ST. Project administration: WW, RE, AW, MBO, ST. Funding acquisition: WW, RE, AW, MBO, ST. Writing–original draft: WW, RE, AW, MBO, ST. Writing–review & editing: WW, RE, CL, AW, MBO, ST.
Conflict of interest
No potential conflict of interest relevant to this article were reported.
Data files are available from Harvard Dataverse: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/CD3NXD
Dataset 1. Raw response files of students to a quiz identical to that administered in the study by Mueller and Oppenheimer [ 2 ] for the “How algorithms shape our world” video with a coding book.
Supplement 1. Demographic questions.
Supplement 2. Ten-item quiz identical to that used in Mueller and Oppenheimer’s study [ 2 ] for the “How algorithms shape our world” video.
Supplement 3. Audio recording of the abstract.
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Paper Vs. Digital: What’s The Best Way To Take Notes?
School is back in session, so it’s time again for that ever important question: Which are better: Paper or digital notes? One camp on this issue says, “Who cares, as long as students are taking notes!?” but the students taking the notes usually have pretty clear opinions one way or another. So what are the advantages of each type of notetaking and which has been proven most effective?
The advantage of digital notetaking is that so much of a student’s work is done online today, that copying and pasting information makes note-taking a whole lot easier. With that simplicity, notes also become much more efficient. Students can work together with classmates to share a Google doc and add to each other’s notes, comment and clarify questions for each other, and work together as a team to make sure their notes are effective and efficient.
Another amazing part of digital notes is that they can be taken everywhere without a massive notebook or binder. This means that students are free to study or reference their notes wherever they go. If they’re feeling strapped for time and have a few minutes before a doctor appointment or practice, digital notes can be pulled up on their phone or other connected device to provide easy access for study time.
Organization can be wildly difficult for middle and high school aged students. Sure, some students excel at keeping themselves organized, but we’ve all seen that student whose backpack spills out with every scrap of paper other than the one they need! Maybe you’ve parented a student like that or are that student, and you cringe at the thought of the many assignments that went missing despite it being completed. Digital notetaking eliminates the physical clutter of paper notes, but you still have to organize them into file folders to make sure they’re going to be handy when you need them.
On the other hand, paper notes offer some advantages that students might not automatically identify because they often take more effort than the copy/paste convenience of their digital counterparts. The most important aspect of paper notes to recognize is that scientists have actually studied the effectiveness of digital versus paper notes and have found that paper notes are simply more effective if students are using them to learn and remember what they’re learning. Since it would be a rare student who took notes “just for the fun of it,” that’s a pretty important piece of information to take into consideration.
Although studies have been proving this to be true since the start of the digital notetaking option, one study entitled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” by Pam A. Mueller from Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer from the University of California found that hand written notes are best, as their article’s clever title indicates.
In an interview, Mueller said, “When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can. The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective – because you can’t write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them.” Over the course of three different studies, the researchers noted a significant lack of processing in the notes of students who used a digital format versus hand written.
In other words, hand written notes force students to think about what they’re writing down, making them think more deeply about what the message means and how to boil it down into simpler terms. This is a higher level processing and thinking skill than copying word-for-word. This is an amazing advantage given to hand written notes!
Another benefit of hand written notes is that students connect more personally when they see their own handwriting rather than the sanitized typed version of digital notes. It’s no secret that our brains like what our brains produce! When your brain sees its own handwriting, the connection to the message is naturally stronger. Your brain recognizes the loops in the letter “s” you make, the funny slant you have the habit of adding to the letter “r,” and the way you always dot the letter “i” above the letter after it. This helps the message of the notes sink in more and makes them more productive and useful.
The one consideration that everyone needs to make is personal preference. If a student is willing to put in more time studying their digital notes, then they can end up being just as effective as hand written. Likewise, a student who prefers to write their notes has to be sure to keep them organized and tidy. When it comes to taking notes, you can find advantages and disadvantages to each, so finding the type of note that helps you perform at your highest potential academically might take some experimenting and some experience. Stick with it, and just don’t stop taking notes! They are a valuable resource to students, young and old.
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