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Researchers: We Learn Better Using Paper Than Laptops and Phones

Writing on paper involves more of our whole minds and even more of our bodies — and that aids retention

It doesn’t sound like good news in a digital society but at least hear the reasoning:

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 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.

University of Tokyo, “Study shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on tablet or smartphone” at MedicalXpress (March 19, 2021)

The remarkable part of the story is that students who took notes by hand finished the task 25% faster than the ones who used digital methods. Digital is supposed to be faster but it wasn’t.

One issue the researchers identified, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with the students, is that our brains are accustomed to learning in specific ways. For example, we often remember the details of the media by which we learned something. But digital media are more uniform:

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.

University of Tokyo, “Study shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on tablet or smartphone” at MedicalXpress (March 19, 2021)

Sakai’s recent study is hardly the only one of its type.


According to a new study , Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University and UCLA Los Angeles respectively, students who write out their notes by hand actually learn more than those to type their notes on laptops. Over the course of several experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer tested students’ memories for factual detail, conceptual comprehension, and synthesizing capabilities after half of them took notes by hands and the other half took notes by way of computer. Students who used laptops cranked out more words than hand-writers did, but the hand-writers ended up with a stronger conceptual understanding across the board.

Allison Eck, “For More Effective Studying, Take Notes With Pen and Paper” at PBS


For her new book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (2015), linguistics professor Naomi Baron conducted a survey of reading preferences among over 300 university students across the US, Japan, Slovakia and Germany. When given a choice between media ranging from printouts to smartphones, laptops, e-readers and desktops, 92% of respondents replied that it was hard copy that best allowed them to concentrate.

Tom Chatfield, “Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain” at The Guardian


Students using laptops can also distract their classmates from their learning, another lab experiment suggests. Researchers at York and McMaster recruited students to watch a lecture and then tested their comprehension. Some students were randomly assigned to do some short tasks on their laptops during the lecture (e.g., look up movie times). Others were allowed to focus on the lecture. All seats were randomly assigned.

As expected, the multitasking students learned less than those focused on the lecture, scoring about 11 percent lower on a test. What is more surprising: the learning of students near the multitaskers also suffered. Students who could see the screen of a multitasker’s laptop (but were not multitasking themselves) scored 17 percent lower on comprehension than those who had no distracting view. It’s hard to stay focused when a field of laptops open to Facebook, Snapchat, and email lies between you and the lecturer.

Susan Dynarski, “For Note Taking, Low-Tech Is Often Best” at Harvard Graduate School of Education


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.

Ellie Bothwell, “Pen and paper ‘beats computers for retaining knowledge’” at Times Higher Education


[w]riting with your hand engages the memory and cognition centers of your brain in a different way than typing.

In addition, you are more likely to write down key points as you actually process the information you hear rather than simply taking dictation because handwriting is slower than typing.

Editorial, “Mama Was Right! Study Shows Students Learn Better When They Take Handwritten Notes” at DailyHealthPost

Digital media provide many advantages over paper. But retaining our learning may not be one of them.

Okay. you probably don’t want to give up digital writing anyway, right? So split the difference.

If you are pretty sure you understand what you are hearing, don’t worry about it. If, however, you find yourself confused, start writing out what you are hearing. Then, look up the topic online and write out notes about the explanation you are reading, including questions. That way, you are bringing more of your mind’s natural learning powers to the problem than reading, listening, and keyboarding alone can provide.

Also consider online graphics and videos on the topic, as well as interviews and news stories. A moment will come when you suddenly realize that you do understand it now. We all have many different types of learning abilities. When we run into problems, it is often because we are just not using all of them.

The paper is open access.

You may also wish to read: The smartest phone is silent in class. While academics debate smartphones’ effect on teens, some hard facts begin to emerge. A consensus seems to be growing that students get better grades when separated from smartphones in learning environments.

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Researchers: We Learn Better Using Paper Than Laptops and Phones