New research underlines the power of the pen in learning

Picture a university; rows of classmates in lecture theatres, each with their own laptop, frantically taking notes as lecturers offer up their wisdom. Gone are the days of frayed notebooks and cheap, chewed-up pens. But before the humble pen is bid goodbye, it’s important to pause and consider if it still has a role to play in today’s technology based learning environment?

Since its inception, the pen has allowed some of human kind’s most creative minds – from William Shakespeare to Leonardo da Vinci – to contribute their best, to spread their brilliance and to leave a legacy. We must not forget that the pen itself was once a technological marvel to Ancient Egyptians writing on papyrus and, even over thousands of years, it has endured. And it continues to play a role today, albeit increasingly in a digital context.

Understanding how technology and learning intersect is a fascinating area for many, including cognitive neuropsychologists Audrey van der Meer and Ruud van der Weel from the renowned Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU). Experts in their field, the researchers have dedicated years to studying the differences between using a pen and using a keyboard and how it impacts learning.

Inspired by previous studies that suggested long-hand note taking using a pen deepens the mind’s ability to retain and process information, van der Meer and van der Weel carried out a two-month research project with students in a university. Their project aimed to find out whether note taking by typing versus note taking with a pen would bring about differences in brain activity, thereby affecting a student’s ability to learn.

Looking like something from a science-fiction movie, the researchers hooked students up to more than 250 sensors that monitored their brain signals, as the students completed tasks involving typing and note-taking by hand.

We do learn differently when using a pen and keyboard

The results found that when writing or drawing by hand, different parts of the brain were active and in different ways. This pioneering research provided the first electrophysiological evidence that the brain behaves differently when writing or drawing using a pen compared with typing on a keyboard.

The researchers conclude that rich sensory-motor experiences seem to facilitate learning, or put simply, it is the physical movement of the pen that makes the difference. The movement is picked up by the senses and, due to their involvement, results in different neural activity that governs all higher levels of cognitive processing and learning.

Explaining the importance of the results, van der Meer says that,

“This difference in activity is really significant, it tells us that using a pen to take notes means that the brain is able to process learning in a much more effective way.”

Traditional note-taking with 21st century technology

At a time when so many students are using laptops exclusively for their work, the research underlines the power of the pen in learning. This has implications for students looking to get the most out of their education, with van der Meer adding, “I really hope this research will help bring note taking with a pen back into classrooms.”

As the research findings outline, the pen has significant potential to enrich our learning and therefore has a place in education today, but not necessarily at the expense of our digital devices. Van der Meer suggests there are many tablet and hybrid devices currently available that allow the use of a pen or stylus, helping students to get the most out of ancient and modern technology.

“Stylus technology – like the Surface Pen – provides a means to have an electronic record of one’s notes all in one place, while also having the benefit of integrating sensorimotor information as it comes in via the senses and is subsequently processed in the various parts of the brain through hand movement,” noted van der Meer.

While we may have been forgiven for believing the pen would soon be retired in our increasingly digital world, it is in fact as important and relevant now as it has been throughout the ages. Instead of seeing the pen as part of an analogue world, it can be embraced as a component of our digital learning experiences.


Research carried out by Audrey van der Meer & F.R. (Ruud) van der Weel, Department of Psychology, Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory, Norwegian University of Science & Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway

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