Thursday, March 29, 2012

Screen reading versus paper

 Yesterday at work I was discussing the issue of note taking in the classroom with a colleague.  Very few of our students seem to take notes; some claim to use their smart phone and others will bring a laptop.  When I bring in a guest speaker, I don't allow typing of notes because I know it can be distracting. I have also always secretly felt that if they write it down, it will help them remember it. (Actually I have said this out loud to students and most ignore the advice!)  But one of my top students this year does in fact use pen and paper to take notes during lectures. She's one of a few.

My colleague told me  that she heard of a study that has made a link between cursive handwriting, which causes the muscles in the arm to be engaged, and the brain and memory.  I came across a couple of items regarding this issue but am still searching for anything that would be more recent.

Today in my local paper there is an article that tells about a study that finds textbooks outperform e-books, that it is easier to grasp and retain information from print. The study was  done in the U.K., by Kate Garland, a lecturer at the University of Leicester.

Specifically, she found participants in the study needed "repeated exposure and rehearsal" of on-screen material in order to grasp the same information. Paper readers were also "better able to apply the knowledge in the material from books."

The News services article in the Waterloo Region Record went on to explain:
"People recall information through episodic memory or 'remembering' which involves consciously identifying the context in which they learned something, and semantic memory or 'knowing' which doesn't require context. In the long term, 'knowing' knowledge is better because important facts are recalled faster and more easily, Garland says. Her findings suggest that the shift from 'remember' to 'know' happens earlier when participants read paper than when they read screens."

Daniel Wigdor, a computer science professor at the University of Toronto specializes in interfaces with new technologies. He says the problem with e-readers is that they lack physicality and tools, that the endless scrolling through pages can be "overwhelming, distracting and slow." He does believe that the way people read will shift and adapt to technology but that "toolmakers have to meet us halfway and give us things to do the kind of not just reading, but active reading that you need to do when you're learning."

I can relate. I purchased a e-book to read over my holidays and have now bought a paper copy so that I can highlight and find sections easily for reference. I also want to pass the book on to family and could not do that with my e-reader. But the books that I would just read once for pleasure and escape were great for the e-reader. I also could take lots of reading for the beach without taking up space in my luggage.


  1. Kim, your post really resonates with me. I've tried taking notes via laptop during lectures, but find that I somehow absorb material more fully when I write my notes on paper. I've also always been a compulsive doodler during school at various levels, despite being chided for "not paying attention" by a number of teachers over the years. I felt a huge sense of vindication a few months ago when I came across the Ted Talk "Sunni Brown: Doodlers, unite!" (Only 5:51 if you're interested)

    Brown argues that doodling is a powerful tool that helps the listener process information. Rather than something done when losing focus, it is a "pre-emptive measure" taken to avoid losing focus. She also argues that it is a powerful way to spark creativity. According to Brown, we have to engage two learning modalities from among these four - visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic - (or one modality plus an emotional experience) to deeply engage with material. Since doodling adds a second modality, those who are listening and doodling can actually be paying more "attention" than those who are just listening and *appearing* to be focused.

    In the Wall Street Journal article you've referenced above, Kim, educational psychologist Virginia Berninger found that, in comparison to the simple action of typing, handwriting, with its "sequential finger movements" activated more regions of the brain, including those involved in thinking, language and memory. So your point, Kim, your point about the lack of physicality in some e-tools makes a lot of sense.

    When I have to read extensive material online, I often save it as PDF so that I can use some of Acrobat's highlighting and comment tools. However, Acrobat's tools don't give me the same sense of connection with the material I'm reading as being able to scribble notes or highlight with a real pen does. Much as I've wanted to cut down on my paper consumption for the sake of sustainability, I still print out stuff that I really need to read deeply. I try to compensate by carrying a stainless steel water bottle and coffee cup so that at least I'm not using paper cups and plastic bottles!

  2. Hi Kim,
    Your (and others') comments regarding cursive handwriting have really resonated with me. As you may remember I have 3 sons (20yrs/19yrs/13yrs) and none of them can read or write cursive handwriting. It's handwritten caps all the way for those boys. None of them received any education on how to write cursive and as a result they can't read it. I didn't realize they weren't able to read or write cursive handwriting until I asked them to double-check the grocery list to ensure I wasn't forgetting anything. They couldn't read my handwriting! Somehow the generation gap widened at that moment.

    Danielle Magnuson the author of the article you pointed out entitled, Cursive at a Crossroads wrote, "It bears mentioning that a child who never learns to write cursive will also never learn to read cursive. The neglected art has already created a generation of schoolchildren, from third graders on up through high schoolers, to whom cursive is a foreign alphabet. Claudette Sandecki met the written language barrier head-on (Terrace Standard, July 6, 2011)" in paragraph 4. In regards to their keyboarding skills, I don’t think they have received any or very little; but they (especially the two older boys) are able to communicate adequately online.

    There was some discussion earlier about the possibility of libraries disappearing. I don’t know if libraries will disappear but the ability to read handwritten manuscripts and scrolls may disappear over the years based on Magnuson‘s findings. This is a very interesting side-effect or impact of decreasing and / or eliminating cursive handwriting from the K – 12 curriculums.

    Here is a link to an article and interview regarding the Georgia Department of Education’s decision to consider eliminating cursive handwriting based on funding: The New York Times published an article about a year ago (April 27, 2011) entitled The Case for Cursive:

    Magnuson, D. (2011, July 6) Cursive at a Crossroads. UTNE Reader. Retrieved from