The Pen(cil) Is Mightier Than the Screen: Math Must Be Written Out

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Pencil on worksheet with math problems.

This might sound counterintuitive coming from a company that has literally hundreds of online math lessons available on YouTube, but for math to be learned well, students must practice on paper. 

Study after study has shown as much:

A 2020 study by the Reboot Foundation found that of students using an online math tool, those who were encouraged to do their calculations using pencil and paper did an average of 13 points better than those who weren’t. 

A 2014 series of studies published in Psychological Science found that those students who take notes by hand (which allows them to summarize, paraphrase, and concept map) perform better than students who type notes quickly verbatim on a laptop. 

A 2017 review of research done since 1992 found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length, which is apparently related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension.

– The same authors as the 2017 review conducted their own three studies on college students and found that comprehension was better for print reading than it was for digital reading. 

A 2021 Tokyo study shows stronger brain activity after writing on paper than on a tablet or smartphone, suggesting that unique, complex information in analog methods likely gives the brain more details to trigger memory. 

And let’s not forget the importance of “showing your work” to help students grasp concepts and avoid guessing while allowing teachers to troubleshoot incomprehension and pinpoint mistakes in calculatory processes. 

All of the above is why eMATHinstruction sells workbooks to school districts and offers free print-outs to teachers — so that students can work out problems on paper

All this is not to say that there aren’t effective uses for digital technology when it comes to teaching and learning math. For example, the interactivity and dynamics of digital tools can be particularly helpful in geometry education, where comprehending visual and dynamic geometrical objects and relations is necessary. And tech certainly has its benefits: with more and more communities gaining access to internet infrastructure, kids can use and reuse infinite online learning tools, making learning more equitable; education can happen across borders; online files can’t be damaged the way physical textbooks can; and relying on less paper is more sustainable. The digital tools currently available haven’t yet reached their full potential: the features of digital resources — e.g. dynamics, feedback, personalization, and cooperation — can and should be improved upon. The sky’s the limit! Or should we say, the potential is unbounded by any finite number.

As with most things in life, a balanced approach is best: use and improve upon technology to aid in the teaching and learning of math, but don’t give up on the tried-and-true method of pencil on paper. Good Will Hunting would not have won an Oscar had Matt Damon done his calculations on a computer instead of a chalkboard. Plus, pencil sharpeners are just plain fun!

Matt Damon proves math must be written out in “Good Will Hunting