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My online tutoring technology (4): Why I use handwriting instead of typing

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

When I created my online tutoring service, I was determined to make it as natural as possible. That’s why my students write their math out by hand using a digital pen tablet instead of typing.

So I was intrigued to come across a study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Lisa Anthony, Jie Yang, and Kenneth Koedinger about “How Handwritten Input Helps Students Learning Algebra Equation Solving.” I had just extrapolated from my own experience that it’s no fun to type math, and writing it out with a digital pen is way better. But here are actual scientists conducting an NSF-funded experiment about it!!! Now I’ve got some data!!!

The study compares three learning interfaces: handwriting, handwriting-while-speaking, and typing. And it poses the question, “Do students experience differences in learning due to the modality in which they generate their answers?”

Researchers found four key differences:

Handwriting frees up brain space. Using the handwriting interface decreased “extraneous cognitive load.” Having to worry about how to type the math into a computer doesn’t help you learn. When you don’t have to use part of your brain to figure out how to type the math, you have more space in your brain to solve the math.

It’s easier to write math out by hand than to type it. It’s easier to write exponents and fractions by hand than to figure out how to type them, and the more advanced the math gets, the more fractions, exponents, and other visually complex symbols are involved. “Handwriting is a much more flexible and robust modality for representing and manipulating such spatial relationships.”

It’s easier to transition back to paper. Unlike typing, handwriting on a computer and then switching back to paper does not involve a “modality switch.”

The real stunner: When writing by hand as opposed to typing, students solved problems twice as quickly. Whether they were just copying problems or solving them, students who were typing took about twice as long to enter equations than students writing them by hand, or writing them by hand while speaking. Even though the students who used handwriting moved so much faster, they learned just as much as the students who typed.

The researchers pointed out that “students who can get through more problems more quickly by virtue of a more natural interface can therefore advance farther in the curriculum than if they had been typing.” The extreme difference in learning times led them to wonder if handwriting was actually a more efficient learning modality than typing.

They also speculated that, since so many students preferred writing math by hand to typing it, perhaps they engaged in the tutoring more when they were using their preferred modality.

Aside from learning differences, the vast majority of students preferred handwriting. Over 78% of the 38 students who participated (half male, half female, ranging from sixth to twelfth grade) said they preferred either handwriting or handwriting plus speaking.

While students commented that typing “took too long and it was hard to get everything where I wanted,” they observed that handwriting “is how I’m used to doing problems in math class, by writing them out.” Not only was handwriting “easier” and “better” than typing, but students also finished problems faster.

These findings completely confirm my own experience, even though these researchers embarked on this study in the context of students interacting with computer program “tutors,” as opposed to students using computers to interact with a human tutor (like myself). I look forward to hearing more from these researchers!

Related Posts:
My Online Tutoring Technology (1): Why I Chose the Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet
My Online Tutoring Technology (2): Why I Chose Team Skrbl
My Online Tutoring Technology (3): Why I Use Phones Instead of Video
How handwriting helps us learn (or why I use handwriting instead of typing–Virginia Berninger research)

One Comment on “My online tutoring technology (4): Why I use handwriting instead of typing”

  • John Sonneborn on February 20th 7:15 pm

    I’m 20-year tutor tutoring many subjects and considering online tutoring. What I haven’t been able to find out is what equipment/program the student needs to have. (I would insist upon handwriting.)

    Thanks for our articles.


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