Nov 30, 2015

In Defense of Pen & Paper

By Allison Rzen

While similar in age to our new prime minister, I’m old enough to remember and have used things like carbon paper, typewriters and personalized stationery (the perfumed kind!). I remember the day when we got a personal computer at our house. It was a big deal. There was something similar at my school, and it lived on a dolly and got wheeled from classroom to classroom so we all got a chance to learn how to use it. For what I’m not sure, as all through public school and university I took notes with pen and paper, and submitted hand-written reports and essays. The fingers of my writing hand are permanently deformed from hours spent writing notes.

Today, in order to do my job efficiently, I have a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet and a “phone” that really should be called a mobile email device because I rarely use it to talk to people. I have a big pile of pens on my desk, and I know there’s lined paper around here somewhere, but I’m not totally sure where.

When I meet clients, I bring my tablet and efficiently type my notes about the candidate profile. When I interview candidates, I transcribe my notes on my laptop. While certainly we’re trying to save paper, we’ve mainly moved to doing everything electronically because of bad handwriting; I can’t read my co-workers’ handwriting, and if I need to interpret his interview or client notes, I can’t do my job. That, and most of us type faster than we write so we can take more accurate notes with our computers.

Of course, we aren’t the only ones who have whole-heartedly embraced the efficiency technology affords us. Nowhere is this more evident than in university lecture halls. If I were in university today, my fingers would all be straight. Laptops are no longer a luxury, but rather the standard equipment for note-taking students. Laptops are also being introduced in K-12 schools, particularly for students who struggle with reading and writing. We’re all being more efficient and effective thanks to technology.

Or are we?

A recent study by Pam A. Mueller at Princeton University and Daniel M. Oppenheimer at UCLA suggests the method by which we record notes may affect the way we absorb the information we’re hearing. While the study’s authors didn’t have an answer as to the cognitive reasons why, it was clear that those who used pen and paper more effectively processed the information they heard more than those who typed.

My first thought when I heard about this was that all those other things on our laptops and tablets are distracting us from the task at hand, and in fact that has been borne out in other studies. What makes this study so interesting is that they controlled for these distractions and the pen and paper users still performed better answering conceptual questions after the note-taking exercise.

While they call me “Rainbow” at the office because of my commitment to being green, I didn’t switch from pen and paper to technology to save paper. In fact, I worry our technology waste is a far larger problem. I simply thought I was being more efficient and making life easier for my colleagues. However, my clients pay me to listen, to think, and to form opinions and judgments based on what I’ve heard. If I’m too busy transcribing information as opposed to really hearing what’s being said, I’m not being as effective as I’d like. So I’m going to take a little tech break and track down that lined paper. I promise I won’t be submitting my candidate reports or job profiles to you in longhand on scented personalized paper. But try not to be too distracted by my deformed fingers.