In Defense of Pen and Paper

Having taken a couple of years off from school, my philosophy in August was to go big or go home. That mindset (combined with the kind of unbridled confidence that can only come from a pass/fail grading scheme) led me to completely retool my academic routine, starting with the most basic of assumptions– my standard notes system of “one class = one folder + one notebook.” We are talking about actual paper here. And note-cards, the 3×5 kind with lines on them. That was my undergrad modus operandi, but for med school I decided to join the big leagues and go all digital. An ambitious experiment for someone who still uses a flip-phone. I proceeded to note-take exclusively with a PDF-editor on my iPad, using a Bluetooth keyboard and stylus. I even moved to icalendar in lieu of my spiral-bound daily planner. I was a digital purist for two months before I starting reintegrating some printouts of study guides and charts, but in general I finished the semester with the feeling that I had utilized digital technology to the maximum. The positives: I felt extremely environmentally friendly I saved money and time from not printing I stayed organized and efficient The (BIG) negative: I didn’t engage with the material as deeply as I am used to My reflection on the digital revolution is that the technology is way better for entertainment than it is for education. I don’t doubt that digital technology will improve learning at some point. That is why I tried this radical experiment. It just hasn’t arrived yet. I will return to digital when academics are as engaging as a video game. Today, “digital learning” just means that you are reading a PDF rather than a piece of paper. The main difference is that when I read a piece of paper, I am not tempted to check my email. This loss of focus is not compensated with an increase in functionality, and I am looking forward to returning to pen and paper next semester. The other main difference was that I took more notes, but not necessarily better notes. Even a Luddite like me can type faster than write, but when I did so I found myself retaining less. Also, when I had my notes all tidy in digital folders, I lost my appreciation for the big-picture of what we were learning. New research demonstrates that handwritten note-takers do in fact learn better. To take effective notes by hand, you have to be truly present and engage with the material. That is why I call it “note-making.” It is a creative process that, when used correctly, involves some heavy mental lifting to distill the essence of a lecture. The bottom-line is that recreating the lecture verbatim is not only a waste of time, but is actually counter-productive. The game scholar James Paul Gee describes learning in computer games as a four-part process: probe, hypothesize, reprobe, rethink. In these online gaming environments, exploration and reflection drive an interactive learning process. I hope that the future of digital education can move in this direction, but until it does, research suggests that we are better off with pen and paper.

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