Today’s students have grown up with technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers, so they have been exposed to reading on screens their entire lives. Given this state of affairs one would expect their familiarity and preference for technology to translate into great academic performance when using electronic devices for learning and study.
But a new study has found that that is not true.
The study by Lauren M. Singer, Patricia A. Alexander titled Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal has been published in the Review of Educational Research.
The research shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens.
Singer and Alexander are from the University of Maryland and research learning and text comprehension. Their recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media.
“While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it,” they write.
The research found a significant discrepancy between what the student said they preferred (reading on screens) and their actual performance.
The distracting effect of scrolling
“For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension.”
The researchers proceeded to conduct three studies to compare the ability of college students to comprehend information on paper and from screens.
Students first rated their medium of preference. After reading two passages, one online and one in print, these students then completed three tasks: Describe the main idea of the texts, list key points covered in the readings and provide any other relevant content they could recall. When they were done, we asked them to judge their comprehension performance.
The key findings:
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- Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.
- Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
- Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
- Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
- The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
- When it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.
So what do these findings say about print’s place in an increasingly digital world? The researchers have few thoughts and suggestions on the matter.
1. Consider the purpose
When reading, consider whether the purpose is to look for an answer to a very specific question or whether you just want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines.
“There’s likely to be a difference in which medium works best for which purpose. In other words, there’s no “one medium fits all” approach,” suggest the researchers.
2. Analyze the task
Interestingly the researchers found that if students are asked to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no difference between reading from text or a screen.
However, when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print.
“Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed,” suggest the writers.
3. Slow it down
On the other hand, the researchers also found a select group of undergraduates whose comprehension actually improved when they moved from print to digital. What happened here is that these students actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book.
“Using this select group as a model, students could possibly be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts,” suggest the writers.
4. Something that can’t be measured
The Maryland University academics point out that something important would be lost if print is allowed to disappear altogether:
“In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text. There should probably always be a place for print in students’ academic lives – no matter how technologically savvy they become.”
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