In the past decade, classrooms have begun to shift away from textbooks, notebooks, pens and pencils and towards electronic media. In college classrooms, increasing numbers of students are taking notes on laptops, and in high schools teachers are incorporating computers and tablets into their lesson plans. While there are advantages to electronic media, a growing number of studies show that some educational goals are better achieved using traditional pen-and-paper methods. Thus, rather than rushing to digitise learning, teachers and administrators should take a step back, consider their desired educational outcomes and assess the extent to which digital media or paper supports the goals of a particular learning experience.

How paper and digital media differ

One obvious way in which paper and digital media differ is in the ease of accessing external materials. On laptops, students have the ability to go online, which enables them to access source material, supplementary information and online tutorials. This can help students to better understand lessons, and allows for a broader range of classroom activities than would otherwise be possible. However, students with laptops can also access email, social media, online games and other sources of distraction. While in theory students could resist these diversions, studies have shown that most have tremendous difficulty in doing so, and that these sorts of competing demands on students’ attention can undermine information processing (Atchley and Lane , 2014). As such, lessons that require focused attention may be better served using paper, which is devoid of distractions, while lessons that require students to reference external sources or rapidly sift through large quantities of information may benefit from laptop use.

It is worth noting, however, that while digital media offers many distractions, there are also a number of solutions to help students avoid those distractions. For example, software can be installed to monitor what students are doing on their devices or to restrict access to particular websites. While these anti-distraction technologies can be helpful, their availability will obviously depend on the nature of the educational setting (e.g. who owns the devices). Moreover, they can inadvertently undermine the goals of the lessons (e.g. blocking websites that students might productively use to access course-relevant material).

A second way in which laptops and handwriting differ is the speed at which information can be recorded. Most people can type faster than they can write by hand (Brown , 1988). As such, using laptops to take notes has obvious efficiency advantages, allowing students to transcribe a larger percentage of the material that is covered in a lesson. However, this speed advantage tends to lead students to transcribe content word for word, and this can affect the manner in which students process information. For example, because students cannot handwrite fast enough to take verbatim notes when using paper, they are forced to understand and rephrase the content in their own words. This requires students to actually think about the material, rather than merely recording it. By engaging with the material more deeply, students experience more effective learning and consequently perform better on subsequent exams, especially exams involving conceptual understanding (Mueller and Oppenheimer , 2014). In other words, while taking notes on a laptop typically results in a more complete record of a lesson’s content, handwritten notes better facilitate learning. That said, there are additional benefits to digital note-taking, such as allowing for more legible notes (depending on the quality of the student’s handwriting), the ability to index and search notes and the ability to embed hyperlinks to other relevant materials. Depending on the nature of an assignment, these benefits may or may not outweigh the encoding costs associated with digital note-taking.

Paper and digital media also tend to encourage different ways of thinking about the information presented. Students using paper tend to adopt a more concrete mindset (i.e. thinking about how things are done), while those on computers are more likely to adopt an abstract mindset (i.e. thinking about why things are done; (Kaufman and Flanagan , 2016)). This has several implications. Most obviously, paper better supports students who are trying to learn or answer questions about concrete details, while computers better support students who are trying to gain a broader or more general overview of the material. Moreover, students thinking at different levels of abstraction focus on different features of texts and therefore accomplish different learning goals. For example, in proofreading, a concrete mindset helps to identify typos and low-level grammatical errors, while an abstract mindset helps to identify flaws in logical flow or consistency of argument. Consequently, people are better at catching typos when using paper (Wharton-Michael , 2008), but may be better at spotting content errors on computers.

In addition, for reasons that aren’t fully understood, students who learn from paper rather than digital media have a better sense of how well they have learned classroom materials. As a result, they are able to allocate more time to the most challenging material in a lesson – material that they (accurately) realise that they have not learned effectively and thus need to study further. This more efficient allocation of study time can lead to better learning outcomes in situations where students are able to set their own study schedules (Ackerman and Goldsmith , 2011). Importantly, not only do students’ beliefs about how well they understand things lead to more effective study strategies, but such beliefs can also affect motivation (Finn , 2015). Students tend to work harder and study longer when they feel as though they are successfully mastering material. Since paper improves how well-calibrated people are regarding what they have learned, lessons that rely on self-assessment of mastery may be more effective with paper.

However, the effects of digital media on motivation in classrooms are complex and nuanced. Indeed, the motivational effects of technology have been shown to depend on a number of factors, such as the nature of the technology, the attitudes that students (and teachers) have towards the technology, the ease of use of the technology and the nature of the material being taught (for a review, see Cox, 1999).  In particular, teachers are often less concerned with actively motivating students when lessons occur in digital rather than more traditional paper formats, as teachers often (incorrectly) believe that material taught digitally will naturally and inevitably engage students (Cox , 1999). In the end, student motivation should be thought of as an interaction between the specifics of the lesson plan and the media being used to convey that lesson plan.

There are many other ways in which paper and digital media differ with respect to learning. For example, research has shown that reading on a computer screen is more fatiguing than reading paper (Dillon et al., 1988). This suggests that paper may be particularly effective for longer lessons, especially when there are limited opportunities for students to rest or take breaks. Perhaps because of the fatiguing nature of reading from a screen, people tend to prefer reading and learning from paper (Annand , 2008); (Spencer , 2006), which could lead to motivational differences and an increased willingness to engage with learning materials.

In sum, paper and digital media require and engender different ways of thinking and therefore produce different educational outcomes. Educators who are considering the adoption of digital media in their classrooms should think through how these differences will interact with their learning goals and lesson plans. Crucially, paper and digital media are not mutually exclusive; both can provide tremendous value in the classroom. As such, educators should not be trying to determine which medium to adopt, but rather when and how each medium can support classroom objectives.

This article is based on an original article commissioned by the Paper and Packaging Board, USA.

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