Does Going Digital Alter Learner Retention?

Man takes notes with a pen and paper while woman types on laptop.

People engage in learning through different formats. This can vary based on the learning environment and the stakeholders involved in the development of content. With the recent uptake in online and computer learning, as course designers and instructors we need to ponder a new question—is the option of having a digital textbook and taking notes on a computer just as effective as a paper textbook and handwritten notes? This debate includes many individuals adamantly on one side or the other, so the answer should be investigated through research to determine what the evidence tells us. To begin this conversation, let’s look at existing studies and determine how these two available options should inform course design moving forward.

Digital or physical course materials

Traditionally, many classrooms use one or multiple textbooks. Now, with the internet and computers readily available, the number of options for knowledge collection have increased. Information has become more accessible in both availability and ways it can be read and engaged with (which is great for students with different learning needs as referenced by Tara in An Overview of Universal Design for Learning). Digital options include videos, e-textbooks, publisher content, and online articles. Additionally, interactive coursework delivered through software such as Articulate Rise also provides another way for students to engage with the content.

The increase in availability—and often the decrease in cost for students—means it would seem moving resources online would be a no brainer. But is it really the best choice? Is the ability to physically turn pages, highlight, and make notes in a hardcopy textbook just as (or even more) effective as reading and digitally marking up electronic alternatives?

According to the research, the consensus is we are not sure which medium works better. The benefits depend primarily on the contextual components of the course, such as the learner, course content, course objectives, modality, and instructor. But when we look at the data for when students engage in similar content in different formats, we find a noticeable neurological phenomenon.
In 2015, a study found “Collectively, results suggest that students engage in different learning strategies that might short-circuit comprehension when interfacing with digital devices compared to print.” (Niccoli, 2015). This finding appears to indicate the two presented modalities engage different parts of the brain—which alters the ability to compare the formats on an equal standing. In addition, the author shows some concerns with the electronic options; she views the memory process as shortened with digital resources. However, a more recent study found “Eye-movement data indicated that the print and digital groups spent about the same amount of time processing the article, texts, diagrams, and diagram statements, but the time was not divided evenly between the first pass and the rereading stages.” (Yu-Cin Jian, 2022, p. 1549). With that information, we need to rely on knowing the learner needs and environment to determine the best choice. Based on that, we can then employ the proper tools for the results we are looking for.

Many components need to be considered to help us decide which option is most effective for the curriculum being presented. With an understanding that different modalities can engage different parts of the brain, we need to ask if one option is more effective than the other for assessment and memory. Electronic books have a strength in the increased accessibility of software compared to a stagnant textbook. But many believe that a hardcopy book is the better option, especially for a book intended to be kept and referenced throughout an individual’s life and career.

Another good starting point can be found in Yu-Cin Jian’s work. If the student only needs to engage with and fully understand one viewpoint, providing a paper copy will be effective. With a paper copy, the student does less re-reading and picks up more verbatim understanding based on the findings in this research. But, if the student needs to get a general idea of many viewpoints from various sources, you can try the electronic modality. The student will be more likely to skim and pick up big ideas rather than deeply read the whole text. This may not be the solution that fits all spaces, but it is a starting point for looking at what the students need to learn and basing the decision from that knowledge.

Right now, there is no clear winner as to if cognition is improved with one format versus the other. Print takes a slight lead in showing a more intentional form of reading than e-text (as concluded in the Yu-Cin Jian article), but e-text increases accessibility options. Overall, it comes down to the students and learning environment.

Analog versus digital notetaking

We also need to consider the methods students use to record their thoughts and summarize the materials. The learning process includes absorbing information, mentally translating and categorizing it in the brain, and the ability to repeat the information back in a meaningful way. Notetaking supports this process. More learners have access to computers and tablets. When students feel short on time to record a lot of information, typing can be a faster way to record information compared to handwritten notes. Speed can be seen as helpful, but these devices also can open the door to multitasking. Students can run many programs at once, which perpetuates the fear of distraction while using an electronic device instead of pen and paper in the classroom. But, based on the research, electronics might not limit learning as much as what is feared. As noted by Association for Psychological Science (2021), their study showed:

[…] no significant relationship was found between typed versus longhand notetaking and factual recall. Both studies also found that students’ typed notes contained more words and exhibited a greater degree of verbatim overlap than students’ handwritten notes. Higher word count was associated with a better quiz score, whereas more word-for-word overlap was associated with worse performance.

Again, we can see trends in the evidence just like with the debate about textbook format. Yet we cannot come to a conclusive decision for which is the best method. Environmental variables come into play for the effectiveness of each notetaking option. This engagement can be based on modality, but an individual’s motivation and interest also come into play. We need to focus on and look for how well students engage their memory and recall while learning.


While there is clearly an expanding amount of current research being done on this topic, no conclusive answers have been found. So, what do we do to make sure our learning environments are effective when it comes to resources and notes? As incoming students’ literacy in electronics increases, it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the use of electronics in place of paper and how it alters learning and retention. Based on the existing research, it appears that it is a fairly even playing field right now. It remains to be seen whether one option is more effective that the other is based on the student, the content, and the environment.

Therefore, our focus should remain on how we engage the brain in the learning process to “light up” more areas of the student’s cognition. Learner engagement increases retention. We need to make sure to provide multiple means of engagement and interactions for our students. Application is also incredibly important for knowledge transfer, so if the medium chosen is conductive to all of those components we can be confident in the choices made for the learning environment.

It would be much simpler if there was a clear-cut answer after this investigation of current modalities for textbooks and notetaking. But our focus must be on understanding our specific students’ and content needs. Each learning environment is unique. We need to ask the questions about the best options based on the space we are in not just what we are accustomed to using. While there’s no cookie cutter answer, we always will find students who are curious and ready to learn if we provide resources and opportunities for content engagement that reaches them where they are—and scaffolds them to a greater understanding.


Association for Psychological Science. (2021, April 30). Don’t ditch the laptop just yet: Replication finds no immediate advantage to writing notes by hand. Observer. (34)3. Retrieved February 16, 2023.

Niccoli, A. (2015, September 28). Paper or tablet? Reading recall and comprehension. EDUCAUSE.

Jian, Y. C. (2022). Reading in print versus digital media uses different cognitive strategies: Evidence from eye movements during science-text reading. Reading and Writing, 35(7), pp. 1549-1568.

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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