Why Students Should Use Plain Gray Paper For Homework and Taking Notes

Most students have probably never thought about what kind of paper they use to take notes or do their homework on. Why should they? Surely, there are scientific studies proving that students learn best using white paper with blue lines, right? Well, despite the billions of dollars worth of notebooks and reams of this paper sold every year, there isn't any evidence to support its superiority. I know, mind blown.

 The standard: white paper with blue lines

The standard: white paper with blue lines

The only claim the trusty old white paper with blue lines could make is that it helps students write in straight lines. But what's more important - writing in perfectly straight lines . . . or learning faster and remembering more?

There isn't a huge body of scientific literature on the subject of paper color and learning, but from the studies that are available, and by throwing in a bit of common sense and personal experience, I hope to convince you that the paper a student uses definitely matters. I haven't used white paper with blue lines for over 15 years now, including during my tutoring sessions. And our tutors don't use it either.

Scientific studies conclude that paper color, ink color, and contrast matter. But the studies of the specific colors, brightnesses, and contrasts are all over the place because of how difficult it is to standardize such things. For example, black and white is relatively easy to standardize, but how do you 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 used in computer programming, but even computer screens display colors, hues, and brightnesses differently. So, the conclusions I make here are based on my broad interpretation of a bunch of scientific studies, fine-tuned with my own personal experience.

 Taking notes on gray paper is better for learning.

Taking notes on gray paper is better for learning.

In college, I decided to try different ways of studying, taking notes, not taking notes, exercising, eating different kinds of foods, and even different varieties of paper, pens, and pencils.

One afternoon while I was sitting in the library working on a difficult math assignment I became mesmerized by the blue lines on my paper. They were putting me into some kind of semi-hypnotic state which was clearly not helping me solve the problems. It was doing the opposite - causing my mind to go blank. 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 the next day 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!

Then I caught a glimpse of the computer paper section. It had dozens of different colors and varieties of paper: pastels, superbrights, earth tones, paper stock, card stock, glossy, recycled. It was like someone had captured a magical rainbow made of paper, sorted it, and placed in on the shelves. After staring at all the different colors for probably nearly an hour (I'm sure I was being watched with bewilderment on the security cameras) I settled on a soothing beige color. I had arrived at my decision by holding up the different colors of paper and seeing if they strained my eyes. Beige didn't, and gray was a close second.

 Hey gray paper, you're easy on the eyes.

Hey gray paper, you're easy on the eyes.

For the last two years of college I did all my work and took notes on unlined, beige paper. It made a huge difference for the following reasons:

Reason 1. It didn't strain my eyes and I didn't become mesmerized by bright white paper with blue lines, which allowed me to focus better on the problems I was working.

Reason 2. I was able to remember things better, like diagrams, pictures, and even how to solve math problems. I later learned  this was because the human brain remembers pictures best and even if a person is looking at words or numbers, the brain will try remember what the words and numbers look like, as if they were an image. Even if it's a math problem with numbers, the brain will actually try to take a "picture" of the math problem to remember how to solve it in the future. It's easier for the brain to take a "picture" if the problem isn't broken up by a bunch of blue lines. The brain "chunks" information and if it can see the problem, diagram, or picture as one big "chunk", as opposed to line-by-line, it will remember it more easily.

Try this exercise to prove it to yourself: Find a picture or diagram 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 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 worked-out problems. You don't!

Reason 3. When teachers and professors handed homework back, they always dropped it in a stack on a table, which caused students to run to the table an engage in a game of Hungry Hungry Homework, tearing through the assignments until they found their name written atop their white paper with blue lines, which looked like everyone else's white paper with blue lines. I would walk up, pluck my colored paper off the table, and walk away. Soon everyone knew the beige paper was mine and someone would just grab it for me, allowing me to avoid the homework feeding frenzy entirely.

So when did I make the jump from beige to gray? Sometime during graduate school at Berkeley. Why? Mostly a personal preference. I think gray paper is even easier on the eyes.

If you don't have a good reason to continue using white paper with blue lines other than "because I've always used it", I would at least recommend giving gray a try.

The Science Behind Color Choice

As I mentioned above, the science behind color and learning is all over the place because of how difficult it is to standardize colors, hues, brightness, etc. But the science definitely shows that certain colors have a positive influence on memory & performance. For a good summary read about the impact of color on the brain, I would recommend: Dzulkifli MA, Mustafar MF. The influence of color on memory performance: a review. Malays J Med Sci. 20. 2:3-9. 2013. It's very "sciencey" and much of it describes what colors elicit the greatest response and draw 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 have a positive impact on memory and retrieval, while others have a negative impact.

Paper color is important enough that our tutors use unlined, gray paper when we work with students. Plus, the change is so simple that even a 2% boost in performance is worth it. How many classes do students miss a higher grade by a fraction of a percent? And, page for page, buying a ream of colored paper costs about the same as buying the traditional blue-lined spiral notebooks.

What Should You Buy?

I buy gray pastel paper from Staples. It's about $11.99 for for a ream of 500 pages. A typical 70-sheet spiral notebook costs about $1.00 - $1.25, so it would cost about $10 for 500 pages.

There is no absolute best choice for color, 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 the contrast isn't too much, or too little. If the paper color is too light it will cause eye strain with dark ink, just like reading black text on a bright computer monitor. If the paper is too dark it will also cause eye strain and reduce the speed at which notes can be read. Find the happy medium that works for you. Science makes suggestions, but you have to fine-tune what works best for you.

Here's the take-home message:

Textbooks don't have blue lines running through the pages and notebooks shouldn't either. Blue lines were made to help little kids write in straight lines. But the contrast of the lines and white paper with dark ink break concentration and hinder the brain's ability to remember what's on the page. Switching to a neutral color will lead to improvements in understanding and retention.