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Students not abandoning pen and paper – 10-nation study
Reading and writing skills are changing with the use of digital technologies, “but students still see benefits of reading and writing with paper which they continue to use, especially to convey private emotions and intimate feelings”, according to a 10-country study. Students also found handwriting helps to retain knowledge.

The study by Dr Jane Vincent, a researcher with the London School of Economics and Political Science or LSE, surveyed some 650 students from Europe and Asia – Italy, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, China, Portugal, Finland and Germany.

The findings were released last Monday although an article from which they were drawn was published last year in the Germany-based Journal of Print and Media Technology Research and will form the basis of a chapter in an upcoming book called Smartphone Culture, co-edited by Vincent and LSE colleague Dr Leslie Haddon.

Vincent wrote in the journal article: “There is no doubt that students have embraced the use of digital technologies in the educational setting of their university with enthusiasm but they have also found that the affordances of chirographic writing and the use of paper have special qualities that cannot be matched by digital media.”

The study

The study was a cross-cultural analysis of qualitative survey data, undertaken to investigate the impacts of digital media on writing and reading in universities in different countries.

Individual country surveys were conducted, in the national language and among a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, using the same research questions and survey methods that included questionnaires and interviews or hand written essays.

The researchers were members of the European Union’s Cooperation in Science and Technology or COST network FP1104 on ‘New possibilities for print media and packaging: Combining print with digital’. The COST network comprises some 140 academics and company members from 29 countries across Europe who share and generate research.

Some findings

“The principal results show that there are many similarities between the countries studied but that some use pen and paper less whereas others are more prepared to use handwriting, this may link to the availability and use of digital technologies as well as to personal preferences,” wrote Vincent.

She said last week: “Overall, while computers are seen as fast and effective communication tools, pen and paper does have some advantages.

“One of the reasons some students favour handwriting is the role it plays in learning and retaining knowledge. Many of the students in our study found making handwritten notes leads to greater retention of data than if it is typed.”

Vincent reported students having difficulties writing mathematical and scientific formulas and graphs on computers. Interestingly: “Chinese students favour writing by hand because they are able to better express themselves in the strokes of handwritten characters than in coded form on the computer.”

In Russia, younger students are less accustomed to handwriting and to reading books, and tend to favour typing and reading on screen. Students from Bulgaria and Finland also prefer computers over paper.

Italian students leaned towards pen and paper, citing its ‘sensorial’ qualities. One Italian student said: “I like very much to enjoy the scent of a book through the fragrance of the paper.”

Computers were favoured for information searches, correcting typed material, creating hyperlinks, spell checking and for legibility and neatness. “Despite problems with posture and tired eyes, reading and writing online is usually more practical in university settings.”

Most students preferred a mix of paper and computers – but said the cost of paper was a drawback.

Vincent wrote in her article: “Reading and writing competencies are changing with the use of digital technologies, but students still see benefits of reading and writing with paper which they continue to use, especially to convey private emotions and intimate feelings."

New learning

“This study provides new learning about the contrasting use of paper and digital media within an educational rather than business setting.” It was clear from the initial surveys that new knowledge regarding student reading and writing practices was emerging.

The new learning has “benefits for the academic and pedagogic communities, some of whom place strong emphasis on digital literacy and less on the quality of handwriting skills and the continued use of paper books”, Vincent concluded.

“The normative practices of students show that there is still a demand for pen and paper as well as keyboard and screen and that in some instances the use of paper is preferred.”

* The full title of the article by Jane Vincent was “Students' use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading – A cross-cultural exploration”, Journal of Print and Media Technology Research V (2) 97-106.
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