The paper you use matters, so choose wisely.
You have probably never thought about what kind of paper you use, have you? After all, why should you – big companies have decided that white paper with blue lines in a spiral notebook or three-ring binder is what every student worldwide should use regardless of age, class, learning style or ability. Surely these companies must have done scientific studies to figure out what kind of paper helps students learn the best. Well, they haven’t, despite selling you billions of dollars worth of these products over the years. I know, I just blew your mind.
But come one Joe the Tutor – does paper really matter? The answer is that there isn’t a huge body of scientific literature on the subject, but from what is available, the conclusion is YES, it definitely matters.
I decided to research and write this article because I haven’t used white paper with blue lines, spiral notebooks, three ring binders, or pencils for about 15 years now, including during my tutoring sessions. And my tutors don’t use them either, for reasons I will discuss shortly. I will also make a disclaimer right now that this article is mostly based on my personal experience. While scientific studies definitely support that paper color, ink color, and contrast matter, the studies of the specific colors, brightnesses, and contrasts are all over the place. For example, black and white is relatively easy to standardize, but how you do describe various shades of gray, green, blue, and their “brightness”? Much tougher, and there isn’t a consistent scientific standard for colors like “blue” and “gray”. It’s easier now with HTML color hex codes (for programming nerds), but even then computer screens display colors, hues, and brightnesses differently. So, this article is my broad interpretation of a bunch of scientific studies, biased by my own personal experience.
But first, let me tell you when and why I broke away from the masses of people using the old, trusty, faded blue bars on albino parchment. It all goes back to my college days – I was trying different ways of studying, taking notes, not taking notes, exercising, eating, and yes, eventually different varieties of paper, pens and pencils. I decided to try something different because as I would sit there trying to figure out complicated math problems I felt like I was becoming mesmerized by the blue lines on my paper, putting me into some kind of semi-hypnotic state which was clearly not helping me learn the material faster, but rather causing my mind to go blank instead. And even after I finished solving problems and would go back and try to look at how I solved them, I would find myself trying to memorize my blue-line-by-blue-line steps, rather than taking a step back and observing the problem as a whole.
So I drove to Office Depot and browsed the notebooks section – maybe if I got a notebook with a really awesome pattern or something on the cover it would be so inspirational that I couldn’t help but to solve differential equations instantly. Hello Kitty, nope. Rainforest, nope. Weird three-dimensional geometric shapes and lines, nope. And besides, they all had blue lines on white paper!
Over to the computer paper section. They had tons of different colors: pastels, superbrights, earth tones, thick, thin, recycled, bleached. It was like someone had captured a magical rainbow made of paper. After staring at all the different colors for probably a half hour (I’m sure the store clerks thought I was crazy) I settled on a soothing beige color. I arrived at this conclusion by holding the different colors of paper in front of me and seeing if they hurt my eyes. Beige didn’t, and a lightish shade of gray was a close second.
For the last two years of college I used unlined, beige paper to do all of my work on. It had a huge benefit for a few reasons:
Reason 1. It was easy on my eyes, so I didn’t become mesmerized by bright white paper with blue lines. This allowed me to focus better and concentrate on the problems I was working on, as opposed to being blinded by the light.
Reason 2. I seemed to be able to remember things better, like diagrams, pictures, and even how to solve math problems. I later figured out that this made sense because your brain tends to remember images best, and even if you’re writing words or numbers your brain will try remember what the words and numbers look like. This means that if you’ve worked out a math problem, your brain will actually try to take a “picture” of the math problem as a whole, in order to remember how to solve that type of problem, and it’s easier for your brain to take the “picture” if the problem isn’t broken up by a bunch of blue lines. Your brain also tries to “chunk” information, which I will write about in another article, and if it can see the problem, diagram, or picture as one big “chunk”, as opposed to line-by-line, then you have a much better chance of remembering it. Try this exercise to prove it to yourself: Find a picture or diagram, any picture, and print two copies. To one of the copies, take a ruler and draw a bunch of blue lines through it with a pen or marker. Then put the two pictures side-by-side and look at them. Which one is easier to look at? And which one do you think you’d be able to remember all the details better at a later time? The one without the lines because it’s one big, flowing chunk (sorry about that description), not a bunch of separate, little chunks (sorry about that one too!). Another mental exercise as proof: Do you think it would be easier to learn from your textbook if it had blue lines running through all the text, diagrams, and photos? Absolutely not, so why would you want blue lines running through all your notes, diagrams, pictures, and problems. You don’t!
Reason 3. When teachers and professors hand homework back they rarely hand them back to the students one-by-one, they always drop them on a table, say “Here’s your homework back”, and the students turn into Homework-Hungry Piranhas, run to the table, and in a feeding frenzy, tear through all the assignments until they find their white paper with blue lines that looks like everyone else’s white paper with blue lines. As the Piranhas were tearing through the stack, I would casually walk up and pluck my manila-colored paper from the stack and walk away. It even got to the point where everyone in the class knew which assignment was mine, and someone would grab it from the pile and just hand it to me as I walked up. Avoided the feeding frenzy entirely!
So when the jump from manila paper to gray paper? Sometime during graduate school at Berkeley. Why? Mostly a personal preference, now I think that gray paper is even easier on the eyes, and there is less contrast between gray paper and black/blue ink versus manila/beige paper and black/blue ink. If you don’t have a good reason to continue using your white paper with blue lines other than “because I’ve always used it”, I would at least recommend giving gray paper, or another neutral color, a try. No lines.
The Science Behind Color Choice
Like I mentioned above, the science behind color and learning is all over the place because of how tough it is to classify colors, hues, brightness, etc. But the science definitely shows that certain colors have a positive influence on memory performance. If you want a decent summary article of the field, I would recommend the one referenced below1. It’s a bit “sciencey” and some of it describes which colors elicit the most arousal/response and get the most attention (i.e. for advertising), which is not relevant to retaining information while you study, but you’ll see the patterns: some colors and contrasts (don’t want too much, don’t want too little) have a positive impact on memory and retrieval. It’s important enough that I have my team of tutors use unlined, gray paper when they work with students. Plus, the change is so simple to make and doesn’t require any ongoing effort on your part, that even if it boosts your performance by as little as 5%, it’s worth it. Besides, buying a ream of paper, even colored paper, is more economical than buying a bunch of spiral notebooks. If you would be devastated by giving up the Hello Kitty or Transformers notebook cover, I’m not sure I can help!
I don’t have a business deal with Staples, but I buy their gray pastel paper, shown here. As a comparison, I’ve put some white paper next to it so you have an idea how much darker it is than white paper. There is no absolute best color choice, just find something that works for you – might be a lighter or darker gray, might be beige, or might be a soothing blue. I’ve used all three at different points in time. You can even mix them, or use different colors for different classes. Just make sure that the contrast isn’t too much, or too little. Too light of paper will cause eye strain with dark ink, just like a bright computer monitor. Too dark of paper also causes eye strain and reduces the speed at which you can read your notes because your eyes and brain have to work harder just read the writing. Find the happy medium that works for you. Science only suggests, you have to be the test subject.
So here’s the take-home message
Your textbooks don’t have blue lines running through the pages, and your notebooks shouldn’t either. The blue lines are for helping little kids write in a straight line, but you’re not a little kid anymore! The contrast of the lines and white paper with dark ink break your concentration, and hinder your brain’s ability to remember what’s on the page. Graduate to a neutral color of paper and you’ll see improvements in your understanding and retention. You might start writing crooked, but just keep trying and you’ll get it straightened out.
- Dzulkifli MA, Mustafar MF. The influence of color on memory performance: a review. Malays J Med Sci. 20. 2:3-9. 2013.