Screen, Paper, Ink and the Modern College Student 

Do today’s university students shun paper in favor of digital devices for their studies? Not according to this global study.

They grew up with digital devices as part of their everyday lives — long after the age of rotary phones and dial tones. So have modern college students shunned paper in favor of digital devices for their studies? Or is there still merit in the idea of putting pen to paper?

That was the basic question researchers sought to answer in a landmark study that surveyed 633 university students in 10 countries in both Europe and Asia.

“Do [college students] still have a use for pen and paper or has digital literacy superseded writing by hand and reading on paper?” asked Jane Vincent. (Vincent, 2016)

“Our aim was to understand whether paper and pen, especially when used for writing and communicating, still figured in the daily lives of the students whom we knew to be avid users of digital technologies via keyboard and screens,” Vincent continues.

While the students responded that they were indeed voracious users of digital media, they also placed a stronger value on handwriting, finding it both more meaningful and more helpful in studying. In analyzing the results, five distinct themes emerged: 1) cross-cultural coincidences; 2) aesthetics and emotions; 3) ease of use; 4) corporeal comfort; and 5) costs.

1. Cross-cultural Coincidences

The researchers were surprised to find fewer differences in preferences based on country than they expected:  “The first rather astonishing result is that there are lots of coincidences in opinions in Russian, Italian and other countries’ students which show how great the influence of globalization is,” notes Russian team member Olga Verinskaya.

“While the computer is seen as a fast and effective tool, the paper provides increased concentration levels and a more sensorial experience,” noted researchers on the Portuguese team.

It appears that, regardless of the ubiquity of digital devices in everyday life in different countries, the preference for pen and paper in certain situations remains high.

2. Aesthetics and Emotions

For reading and writing, students expressed a strong emotional affinity to paper. According to Vincent, “the aesthetic of the chosen medium is a deciding factor for many; the haptic qualities of the interaction; the touch, feel and smell, as well as the emotions elicited by the encounter were noted by numerous respondents in all countries,” she writes.

“Handwriting is slower and impractical, but at the same time more personal and enjoyable…I want to cherish handwriting.” (Finland)

“I use paper to write on when I have to write important messages, with passion, because in my opinion, your own handwriting makes the message very personal.” (Italy)

3. Ease of Use

In this area, feelings were understandably mixed, and often depended on the subject matter and the purpose. “Most students are not wholly paper or digital but combine paper and digital to suit particular needs,” Vincent notes.

The flexibility of working and editing online is offset by the difficulties in eye strain, posture and other challenges. There was also recognition of the distraction factor working online, while students in Hong Kong emphasized that “using paper encourages them to treat [reading and writing] as complementary behaviours” rather than separate experiences.

“Graphs or complex formulas are not easy to input while writing on a screen.” (China)

“What I like most about a pen is that it is quick to add notes, comments, and all kind of drawings in the text and on the side. For example, for me drawing arrows is easiest by hand.” (Finland)

4. Corporeal comfort

When it comes to physical comfort, there a pros and cons to both paper and digital, the researchers found. Strain on the eyes is somewhat offset by strain on the back, but again, situation comes into play when preferences are noted.

“There is nothing like reading [hard copy]. Not only is reading more comfortable for the eye but also reading is giving you the feeling that the content is more tangible.” (Germany)

“I like digital more, because it is more [easy to] mobilize if I have the appropriate book/manual on my laptop, instead of many, many books to carry.” (Hungary)

5. Costs

The data shows that student behavior is often at odds with their preferences when cost of use comes into play.

“Reading for me is easier when not starting at a screen for hours but when papers are 15 pages long and you have about 30 to read, it’s not economical to print them all off.” (UK)

On the other hand, many students mentioned their awareness of the costs – both financial and environmental – of their digital consumption.

“Paper and pencil are always available, and do not need electricity; such as when having a sudden inspiration in bed.” (Germany)

Students showed they would continue to adapt to economic necessities “but they still have a demonstrable need for all [media] to be available for their use in the University setting,” Vincent explains.

“E-books are sometimes necessary in modern life…You can find a digital copy of a rare or very old book. So I use both forms.” (Russia)

How Science is Informing the Future of Education

While the data on its own is fascinating, the results could have far-reaching impacts on how universities approach material decisions. As gadgets and devices become lighter and quicker, the move to digital might be compelling, yet Vincent urges educators to take heed.

As she notes, it is clear that “new knowledge regarding student reading and writing practices is emerging and further research is certainly needed.

Universities and professors who are inclined to move solely to digital would be wise to note the summary point of the research.

“The normative practices of students show that there is still a demand for pen and paper as well as a keyboard and screen and that in some instances the use of paper is preferred,” she writes.

Download the full paper here.


Vincent, Jane. (2016). “Students’ use of paper and pen versus digital media in university environments for writing and reading – a cross-cultural exploration.” Journal of Print Media and Media Technology Research, 5 (2). pp. 97-106. ISSN 2223-8905