A 2014 research study with a catchy title is often pointed to by those who worry that technology is having unexpected downsides in the classroom. It’s titled “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” and it found that students who took notes on a TED talk by hand did better on conceptual recall questions afterward than those who typed their notes on a laptop.
The study has been cited in other peer-reviewed journals more than 1,200 times, according to Google Scholar, and it has been pointed to in op-eds and other popular articles as well. And it fit with the hunches of many “laptop skeptics,” says Michelle D. Miller, a psychology professor at Northern Arizona University, “confirming that people write more and remember less when keyboarding.”
But there’s one problem with the research, Miller points out. When other scholars have repeated the same experiment, they haven’t been able to get the same result.
“Some patterns found in the original study replicated, but some—most notably the conceptual recall question advantage—did not,” Miller writes in a forthcoming book, “Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology.” Miller is quick to note that the authors of the original study did nothing wrong, and that it is typical for small studies to have findings that turn out to be “fragile” when submitted to follow-up studies. As she notes: “All this back and forth is good social science, but from a practical standpoint it leads to one fairly glaring conclusion: If the supposed advantage of handwriting is flaky enough, or simply small enough, not to reliably show up across studies, we probably shouldn’t be remaking our classroom policies because of it.”
Miller has been looking into what learning science says about all kinds of narratives that float around technology and teaching these days. Do learners remember less when they can fall back on search engines? Do younger generations that grew up with technology—so-called digital natives—really function better with machines than older folks do? And can tech be used to help boost students’ memory of what they’re taught?
EdSurge connected with Miller to find out what she learned about these questions and more for this week’s EdSurge Podcast.
As for the study on note taking, it turns out that in the original and in follow-up studies, students did tend to write down more words when using a laptop compared to when they took notes with pen and paper, and that with a laptop they were more likely to take down words verbatim. For Miller, the situation is a call for more nuance when talking about the impact of technology on teaching.
“We should … set a much higher bar for any future op-ed pieces singing the praises of handwriting, with the expectation that the authors will either need to offer some major caveats based on the replication question, or a good explanation for why these newer findings don’t matter,” she says. “That alone would be a huge contribution … reintroducing nuance and reminding us that one study does not a definitive scientific conclusion make.”