Paper versus computer, round 237 and 238, now again in favor of paper

Ever since the first pen is mightier than the keyboard suggesting that you would remember more when writing notes on paper rather than by typing on a keyboard, there have been different positive and negative replications.

Now there is some new research supporting the original claim:

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.

This is the abstract of this study:

It remains to be determined how different inputs for memory-encoding, such as the use of paper notebooks or mobile devices, affect retrieval processes. We compared three groups of participants who read dialogues on personal schedules and wrote down the scheduled appointments on a calendar using a paper notebook (Note), an electronic tablet (Tablet), or a smartphone (Phone). After the retention period for an hour including an interference task, we tested recognition memory of those appointments with visually presented questions in a retrieval task, while scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging. We obtained three major results. First, the duration of writing down schedules was significantly shorter for the Note group than the Tablet and Phone groups, and accuracy was much higher for the Note group in easier (i.e., more straightforward) questions. Because the input methods were equated as much as possible between the Note and Tablet groups, these results indicate that the cognitive processes for the Note group were deeper and more solid. Second, brain activations for all participants during the retrieval phase were localized in the bilateral hippocampus, precuneus, visual cortices, and language-related frontal regions, confirming the involvement of verbalized memory retrieval processes for appointments. Third, activations in these regions were significantly higher for the Note group than those for the Tablet and Phone groups. These enhanced activations for the Note group could not be explained by general cognitive loads or task difficulty, because overall task performances were similar among the groups. The significant superiority in both accuracy and activations for the Note group suggested that the use of a paper notebook promoted the acquisition of rich encoding information and/or spatial information of real papers and that this information could be utilized as effective retrieval clues, leading to higher activations in these specific regions.

Dan Willingham also shared another study this time by HildegunnStøle and colleagues based on data from Norway also in supports paper over screen, but than for reading:

Recent meta-analyses (Delgado et al., 2018; Kong et al., 2018; Clinton, 2019) show that reading comprehension on paper is better than on screen among (young) adults. Children’s screen reading comprehension, however, is underexplored. This article presents an experiment measuring the effect of reading medium on younger (10-year old) readers’ comprehension, carried out in Norway in 2015. In a within-subjects design, students (n = 1139) took two comparable versions of a reading comprehension test – one on paper, and another digitally, with test version and order of medium counterbalanced. Probabilistic test theory models (two-parameter logistic (2 PL) and partial credit models) were employed for both versions of the test, allowing direct comparisons of student achievement across media. Results showed that the students in average achieved lower scores on the digital test than on the paper version. Almost a third of the students performed better on the paper test than they did on the computer test, and the negative effect of screen reading was most pronounced among high-performing girls. Scrolling and/or misplaced digital reading habits may be salient factors behind this difference, which sheds further light on children’s reading performance and how this may be affected by screen technologies. Implications of these findings for education and for reading assessment are discussed.

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