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iPencil or Graphite Pencil?

Art by Jake Upton

By Alex Hepp

The Apple iPad and iPencil make it possible to have access to an online platform while still being able to take handwritten notes. If you’ve been scared away by their price tag, even after finding the best price, join the club. However, if you’re looking for a scientifically good reason to drop 500+ dollars then you’ve come to the right place.

From high school and onwards, students largely self-regulate their process of note-taking, which typically can be broken down into a few sections: the note-taking method, the way in which notes are organized, and the medium that notes are taken on. With modern technology, the options for note-taking mediums has expanded from the traditional notebook to include laptop computers, eWriters (which function exclusively as electronic paper), and other tablets (e.g., iPads, which have eWriting capabilities as well as other functions) (Morehead et al., 2019).

Significant efforts have been dedicated to researching which note-taking techniques foster learning in the classroom. In order to interpret whether a student has demonstrated learning in the classroom, the note-taking process is separated into two distinct groups: encoding and storage of information. Encoding involves the degree to which taking notes improves student learning of the target materials, whereas storage concerns how students subsequently attempt to learn from their notes and its impact on test performance. It is widely accepted that taking notes longhand generally produces equal or better performance outcomes than note-taking on a laptop, determined by mid-lecture quizzes and unit examinations (Morehead et al., 2019).

What is less extensively researched is encoding and storage of information taken during longhand note-taking in a traditional notebook versus on a tablet. Young students growing up with these technological advances will likely experience the full brunt of note-taking on tablets rather than on paper.

A recent study tested the influence of the writing tool on the acquisition of literacy skills at the letter and word level with various tests in a large sample of kindergarten children. These children were trained with 16 letters through several note-taking methods: hand-writing with a pencil on a sheet of paper, by writing with a stylus on a tablet computer, or by typing letters using a virtual keyboard on a tablet across a 7 week period. Results of the study indicated that children in the pencil group displayed superior performance in letter recognition and improved visuo-spatial skills compared with keyboard training. Keyboard training resulted in superior performance in word writing and reading compared with hand-writing training with a stylus on the tablet, but not compared with the pencil group on a sheet of paper. Additionally, the performance of the stylus group did not differ significantly from the keyboard or from the pencil group (Mayer et al., 2020). Taken together, the results suggested that hand-writing with a pencil promotes acquisition of letter knowledge and improves visuo-spatial skills compared with keyboarding. For this set of kindergarten students, writing with a stylus on a touchscreens presented as being the least favorable writing tool.

The use of tablets has become increasingly popular for medical and dental students during their several years of studies. Since 2013, the University of Helsinki has provided new medical and dental students iPads for study use and began a study to explore the self-reported study practices of mobile note-taking. Students overwhelmingly indicated that learning to take digital notes was pivotal in their academic life, and the crucial elements of mobile note-taking were annotation and visual elements in the learning materials (Pyörälä et al., 2019).

Students indicated that paper and pens were replaced by annotations with iPads using note-taking applications, the most popular choices being Notability, Evernote, OneNote, and PDF Expert. They were able to download lecture handouts and process information by underlining, drawing or importing images, and commenting in the margins by typing or hand-writing with a tablet stylus (Pyörälä et al., 2019).

This study revealed that mobile note-taking served the same two functions as traditional paper and pen note-taking: encoding and storage. The ability to annotate and the versatility in presented materials enabled students to combine the linear and non-linear note-taking strategies to better suit their learning style. The majority of students appreciated the potential of the tablet to move back and forth in their notes, create drawings, and make visual representations of information. This versatility allowed them to make connections between new information and prior knowledge to foster deeper processing of ideas and strengthen the retention of content (Pyörälä et al., 2019).

A similar study at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine explored student attitudes towards tablets and styluses. The study reported that tablets provided a generally positive learning experience for most veterinary students. Students indicated that the tablet enhanced student learning experience through learner-interface interaction, learner-content interaction, learner-instructor interaction, and learner-learner interaction. However, it is worth noting that tablets also provided the possibility of digital distraction (Wang et al., 2014).

As digital writing devices have been increasingly replacing pencil and paper in the past decade, it is important to consider which writing tool is optimal for education of all ages. Tablets can provide educational tools and features that may not be available for handwritten on paper, but can also produce digital distraction in the forms of texts, emails, and access to the internet. Weighing these choices is up to each individual student to determine which note-taking style will be most beneficial for their studies and empower them to meet the learning outcomes expected of twenty-first-century adults.


The Natural Philosopher does not promote the purchasing of any of the applications or tablets presented herein. Please pay your rent first.

Works Cited

Mayer, C., Wallner, S., Budde-Spengler, N., Braunert, S., Arndt, P. A., & Kiefer, M. (2020). Literacy Training of Kindergarten Children With Pencil, Keyboard or Tablet Stylus: The Influence of the Writing Tool on Reading and Writing Performance at the Letter and Word Level. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 3054.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Blasiman, R., & Hollis, R. B. (2019). Note-taking habits of 21st Century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory (Hove, England), 27(6), 807–819.

Pyörälä, E., Mäenpää, S., Heinonen, L., Folger, D., Masalin, T., & Hervonen, H. (2019). The art of note taking with mobile devices in medical education. BMC medical education, 19(1), 96.

Wang, H., Rush, B. R., Wilkerson, M., & van der Merwe, D. (2014). Exploring the use of tablet PCs in veterinary medical education: opportunity or obstacle?. Journal of veterinary medical education, 41(2), 122–131.

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