Recent Research on the Detriments to Learning Via Keyboards

1. Lecture and study notes taken by students using a keyboard are less effective than hand written notes. This has been the basis of recent research by a number of people, including Mueller and Oppenheimer who found that students that typed lecture notes performed significantly worse than those who took hand written notes. This was true in short term and longer term tests, and in both factual recall and conceptual learning. According to Mueller and Oppenheimer, students using keyboards took part in what they dubbed “mindless transcription”–they took more notes but they tended to be verbatim notes; in other words, students were effectively acting as a photocopier while bypassing the deeper cognition and processing.

2. Students’ perceptions of effectiveness are at odds with their measured effectiveness. According to researcher Sharon Oviatt, there is a “performance-preference paradox or mismatch between the interface people say they prefer (e.g. keyboard) and what best supports their performance (e.g. pen)”.

3. Keyboards impose significant constraints on symbolic subjects such as Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, script based languages and artistic disciplines. Oviatt also found that these subjects need a greater level of graphic freedom and flexibility than can be offered by a keyboard alone, as keyboards actually inhibit expression in these areas.

4. Creativity and problem solving improves when the flexibility provided by a ‘pen’ and ‘paper’ are available. Oviatt’s other research has repeatedly shown that student performance solving science and math problems improved when using a pen rather than a keyboard. “Using the pen, they produced 56 percent more non-linguistic diagrams (diagrams, symbols, numbers) which led to 9-38 percent improvement in performance.”

5. Use of the “pen” is effectively “built in” to the human brain and thus reduces “cognitive load”. Oviatt’s research on the design of future educational interfaces delves into this finding.

Teachers: Steps to Take Now 

Technology now provides the best of many worlds and better suits the way the brain works. Some people may think that the answer is simply to revert to traditional pen and paper. However, the advantages that digital paper provides are immense. As an example, OneNote effectively provides unlimited paper in which anything, from a web page/URL to an image, photo or video can be embedded. These artifacts can then be written or drawn on to improve communication and understanding. Pages can be shared to allow live collaboration. This video provides an overview of some of these advantages:

Apps such as FluidMath and StaffPad (music composition software) allow interaction with digital paper in a manner that could only have been dreamed of a few years ago.

Devices also now exist that offer both keyboard and stylus. The method of input can be chosen according to the need or situation. Importantly, some devices and operating systems exist that support high fidelity pens, palm rejection technology, and the ability to transparently collaborate with others in real time (even if they are at remote locations, using digital ink to work through higher order problems while using the same piece of digital paper).

Computers need additional input methods that allow for greater expression, as data entry by keyboard limits deep cognitive processing. As educators, we need to embrace the enhancements that integrated digital pens provide for our learners.

About the Author:

Peter West

Peter West is Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen's College in Australia. He has over 15 years’ experience leading K12 schools in technology enhanced education, particularly blended learning using online learning environments. He can be contacted at