Geeking Science: Learning through Paper vs. Tech

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I’m cleaning out old emails, e-newsletters, e-magazines, saved bookmarks, and saved facebook posts off my computer. What a backlog – hundreds of articles and posts and emails I meant to get to “some day”. That “some day” has been over half a year now to process all of the mountain of information. I quickly skim through them, turn some of the more interesting ones into blogs (getting me caught up on my backlog of blogs from the Pandemic), and move on.

Then I hit two articles which made me pause – one is how reading from paper vs a screen produces different learning results, and the other is how notetaking on paper vs. screen produces different learning results.

Technology is a great equalizer, giving those with limited funds access to books and education not previously available. School systems no longer need to devote a budget to books, just tablets and wi-fi, giving teachers options in their instructional process.

Technology is also great for the environment. All that paper no longer needs to be printed, moved, stored, restored after children fingers touch it, and eventually, desposed. And for those of us who never have enough bookshelves, all that time saved culling them annually gives more time reading.

If you can find books on your Kindle. (Could it be LESS user friendly on keeping track of the to-be-read pile vs. the finished-but-want-again vs. the done-and-out?)

Basically buried by books either paper or electronically.

But what happens when learning?

Well, if reading from a screen, students read faster and grabbed the general topics fine. But the meat-and-potatoes of the topic, not so much. Unless the topic was only a page long – then comprehension was the same from paper and screen. (Alexander and Singer) Personally, I’ve noticed the same when reading novels – the ability to jump around in paper – to interact with the story – just doesn’t work on the screen. It’s a front-to-back read, nonstop. When reading novels on paper, I can put the book down and think for a moment, explore in my mind, but somehow with a computer or tablet screen, that dip against the chest and stare-off-into-the-distance of the story doesn’t happen.

The take-away is for most things, screen in fine. Skimming newspaper articles, flipping through magazines which you are not going to return to, getting general information, all this is great for computer and tablets. But if it is something you need to LEARN, lecture and paper is the way to go. Prepping for an anatomy exam to become a doctor, paper books. Prepping for your own operation so you have a clue what the doctor is going to do, screen should be fine. Figure out the level you need to learn the topic and choose the appropriate tools.

How about note-taking? The writing end of things – what we are more interested in as authors.

If note-taking on a computer, it is in-the-ears-and-out-the-fingers verbatim. No processing occurring. I know the truth of this from the times I did transcription – sometimes the people I was transcribing for asked me what I thought and I was like, I don’t have a clue, I’ll need to read it after I’m done.

But if note-taking on paper, the student can’t write as fast as the professor talks, so they have to process and shorten for notes. That processing requires thinking and lecture material sinks in when choosing what needs to be remembered. (npr)

Note-taking on paper is better than just listening without note-taking because of that interaction to record the material … so long as it isn’t a transcription (word-for-word, like using short-hand). (Note, this particular opinion is personal and is not covered in the Bibliography, but a quick google-search backs it up. It’s a topic for another day.)

The study that npr reviewed included testing to see how much people retained immediately after. Then they did a second test, allowing time to study the notes then come back. And even with the much more verbose notes from the computer typing, the paper note-taking produced better comprehension.

But let’s also be truthful on how college works. The students are BURIED under reading and lectures. I know when I did the classes, I always meant to go back and rewrite the notes to get a better understanding. Never had the time. So verbatim notes, those aren’t going to be read; the student would have been better off just listening in class, no matter how much the teacher wants to see all those students taking notes.

The best purpose of notes is the encoding and higher-level thinking during the note-taking, which means writing, not typing or recording.

Even if the student never touches those notes, writing them was important.

Part of this year’s decluttering for me will include throwing out all those notes from college, once I’m done digging myself from the electronic mountain. I need to stop being buried under electronics and papers and actually process the materials I saved for “one day”. Like these two articles.


Alexander, Patricia A. and Singer, Lauren M. “A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens.” Insider. October 15, 2017. – last viewed 1/3/2023.

npr. “Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away.” April 17, 2016. – last viewed 1/3/2023.

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