Computer versus hand: the writing conundrum


A couple of weeks ago, my entire AP World History class was doing a mock Long Essay Question, or LEQ, that was meant to prepare students—those who were taking the AP exams—for what to expect when writing the essay required in the AP World test. A few weeks later, I was in my AP Language and Composition classroom, writing an analytical essay that was also meant to prepare me for the essay I would have to write when doing the AP Lang exam. The difference between these two preparation examinations is that one was done by hand and the other by computer.

Even before COVID-19 shut down schools, online learning had been on the rise with several institutions providing optional online courses to students who were incapable of attending in person. Things like language apps, video conferencing, and virtual tutorials were used. Even the notorious SAT and ACT—which have always been done by hand—are transitioning into the virtual world with college administrations announcing online SATs as soon as 2023 for international students and 2024 in the US.

In the eyes of schools, virtual learning is expanding the horizons of education far from the classic days of paper and pencil. But, does that mean virtual learning is better than learning by hand?

But, does that mean virtual learning is better than learning by hand?

Well, in the eyes of demographics, not really. Access to virtual learning can be difficult for low-income families since online students require a computer and constant Wi-Fi connection. At least 25% of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds do not have access to the requirements to proceed in online education. Writing materials, on the other hand, are easily accessible and affordable for disadvantaged students and provide a method of transcription not dependent on connection or battery. 

Accessibility also provides a key question in whether schools should switch to digital or stay on paper. Writing requires the students to come in person to transcribe the lessons onto paper or for students to get sent packets relaying information. Digital, however, allows students to learn anywhere in the world as long as they can get a connection. 

But, the main argument of the computer- versus hand-learning predicament schools now face is whether or not students learn the material online as well as they would have in school.

Studies found that students who attend in-person learning can remember up to 50-60% of what they learned when writing down material on paper. According to Science News for Students, this is because drawing letters and taking notes long-hand provokes more cognitive thought in the brain since it has to think about the sounding of words and watch the shapes of the letters. 

Digital writing requires less cognitive thought on notes since letters are already imprinted into the database of the computer. All that the students need to do is press the corresponding letters onto the keyboard and, voila, you have your notes. Even apps like Grammarly make taking notes easier, as the writer doesn’t need to think about spelling words wrong since they’ll be corrected.

However, writing in the classroom takes up more time for the students since they have to process the information given to them by the professor on paper. Digital, in contrast, allows students to imprint words faster than it would normally take to write them out; so, while it’s harder to retain information, there are still more notes that students can get down.

Because of the massive defects and profits writing by digital or hand can bring—as seen above—many teachers and schools struggle to decide whether or not they should fully commit to either; it’s truly a writing conundrum.

The best option schools have, for now, is to mix both methods to provide students with the most well-rounded and inclusive learning they can get. Where digital or physical writing effectiveness is concerned, the only one who can truly answer which is more beneficial is the individual who uses both: the student.