Why the pen is mightier than the keyboard: The evidence

When I wrote about “How to help students to remember more” towards the end of last year, I shared a video of my colleague Travis Smith talking about the power of pen-based input for students, over a simple keyboard interface, for key tasks such as note taking. (I recommend either the 15-minute or 60-minute version of his talks).

You’ll see that we strongly believe in the need for digital paper and pen in the way that our products have evolved. Things like the improvements in the natural feel of the stylus in Surface Pro 3, the powerful inking in OneNote and the rest of Office, and the brand new support for hand writing in OneNote on the iPad.

There is a weight of evidence for pen-based interfaces improving learning, and Sharon Oviatt talks about much of it in her book The Design of Future Educational Interfaces from Routledge.

And there’s also an overview by Sharon Oviatt of the work, which you can download from the link below.


It opens with a bang:

“For too long and with too little forethought we have handed our students technology to help them learn. New evidence reveals that certain types of technology actually create barriers to thinking, creating and problem-solving. While other types can enhance these same skills”

And it continues on the theme:

“Computers can either enhance a student’s ability to think, communicate and learn  – or seriously undermine it”

And then it warms up with insight into the research into some key questions:

  • How do keyboards and digital pens stimulate or undermine students’ ability to think?
  • How do interfaces influence language learning?
  • Why do pen interfaces have cognitive advantages?
  • Do these research results apply across different students and subjects?
  • Are all pen interfaces equally effective?

And it then gives detail advice about the kind of interfaces to help students with different learning tasks – when they are exploring, thinking, expressing themselves, collaborating and recording information.

Learn More

Download the Oviatt paper “Computer interfaces and their impact on learning”