Paper or Screen for Comprehension and Learning?

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

reading1

We have blogged about writing with pen/pencil and paper versus writing on a laptop (see here) and concluded that handwriting is more powerful for learning than typing, be it for learning/recognizing letters, learning to read or any other learning like learning from a lecture. This blog explores whether it matters if you read and learn from paper (e.g., a physical book, prited pages, etc.) versus from a screen (e.g., computer, tablet, e-Reader, etc.).

Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. We won’t tell you yet which one is better but you can probably guess it for yourself. 😊

!!Note that this blog is NOT about multitasking nor is it about using hyperlinks in a text. It’s just about (learning through) reading a text!!

We live in an era in which most of us, especially children/students often/mostly read from a screen. The question is: what does this mean for understanding what they read and, as a consequence, for learning?

Studies on learner preferences show contradictory results. For example this article shows that (although that might sound counter-intuitive to many of us): learners still prefer paper books to screens. When asked what they found least attractive about reading paper books, they often responded: “It takes more time because I read a book more thoroughly”. Cull (2011) found that 92% of the learners stated that they could concentrate better when reading a paper book (compared to reading on a screen) and learners also said that they had a tendency to go back to text to reread and rethink the text when it’s printed on paper.
In (partial) contrast, this summary from Alexander and Singer who found that:

  • Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.
  • Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
  • Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print[1].
  • Students actual comprehension was better from print than online.
  • For very general questions (e.g., What was the main topic of the text?) the medium didn’t make a difference.
  • For more specific questions, comprehension was better for printed than for online texts.

Now, we’re never satisfied with just ‘learner opinions’ (as they’re just that, opinions), however, luckily, there’s objective research to learn from as well.

Reading comprehension: paper versus screen

A Norwegian study of 10th graders confirms that reading texts in print versus on a computer screen is better for some aspects of comprehension. It was carried out by Anne Mangen and her colleagues in 2013 at the Reading Centre of the University of Stavanger, Norway. They randomly divided 72 of 10th grade teens into two groups. Both groups were given two texts, a fictional piece and a factual piece. One read the texts as PDF files on standard computer screens, the other on paper. The pupils’ individual reading skills and vocabularies had been charted beforehand, to make allowances for these variations (smart thinking / good methodology by the researchers!). The teens were then asked to answer questions that would show how well they had comprehended the text. The results clearly demonstrated that those who had read on computer screens had understood less than those who read on paper. Perhaps surprisingly, this disparity was encountered with both the fiction and the factual prose.
Singer and Alexander (2017) found similar results, namely that overall comprehension from a text was better for print versus digital reading. They add that the medium didn’t matter for general questions (such as understanding the main idea of the text) but when students were asked more specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when students had read printed texts.

In another study, Santana et al. (2013) looked at the effect of print readers versus online readers with respect to news on recalling the news (they call this recollecting), but also on remembering the things in the news stories. After presenting an extensive literature review of the field, they provided data which established that print readers recall and remember more of what they have read than do online readers.

Why oh why?

Mangen and her co-authors (2013) discuss various possible causes for their results in an article in the International Journal of Educational Research as well as in an article in the Norwegian journal Norsk pedagogisk tidsskrift. In a really interesting interview in ScienceNordic, Mangen says that an obvious difference between computer screens and paper is that paper is actual material. You can feel the weight, texture and thickness of a pamphlet or a book. You can see where it begins, where it ends and where you are in between the two.

You can quickly leaf through the pages of a printed text with your fingers. This perceptible, direct experience gives you a mental map of the entire text. For electronic texts, this physical experience is nearly absent; there you only see one or two pages at a time. The brain has an easier task when you can touch as well as see (and NO! We’re not talking kinaesthetic versus visual learning here! Just to make that clear!). Previous research has demonstrated that such a ‘mental map’ is particularly important if the text is long. Lengthy texts call for quicker navigation. You need to be able to leaf back and forth through different parts of the text to see, review and comprehend relationships and contexts.

This is corroborated by a study (Jabr, 2013; also discussed on fastcompany.com) which found that “reading is topographic. As you read something, you structure out its content in your mind … just as you mentally map a trail as you ascend a mountain, your brain plots the line-by-line journey your eyes walk through a book.” As Jabr notes, you have physical markers like left page facing the right page (recto/verso), the hanging corners, and the shifting of the weight in your hands as you advance from cover to cover. This gives you a sense of narrative context: holding a book, it’s obvious where the individual page relates to the whole of the text, which makes it easier to create that mental map of the text’s meaning. There is a connection between mind and body.

Another study by Baron (2016), run over two years during which she collected data from 429 university students originating from the USA, Japan, Germany, Slovenia and India, gathered that print gave the students a sense of where they were in the book – they could “see” and “feel” where they were in the text. Print was judged to be easier on the eyes and less likely to encourage multitasking that is a distracting temptation resulting from the numerous hyperlinks present in a digital text. The nonlinearity of digital media as well as the ease with which its readers can move quickly and repeatedly among several electronic elements leads to a reading experience characterized by “online multitasking and lack of cognitive focus”.

So, what does this mean? It means that we understand and remember information better if we read it from a page than from a screen. When asked to recall information, our brains will remember where on a page we have read the information (eidetic), aiding in recall. Studying notes from a computer screen or tablet, doesn’t give our brains the same context as reading the information from a textbook or a series of printed pages. “The infinite scroll of a website or clicked pagination of an e-reader doesn’t supply the same cartographic clues … you only have access to the handful of paragraphs present on the screen with the rest of the text is hidden … which means you miss out on the contextual information you receive ambiently by holding a book in your hands.” (interview Jabr, on fastcompany.com).

reading2

What we also know, is that using digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make you more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly. Kauffman and Flanagan (2016) followed people who used computer screens versus paper reading for learning, and found that while screen learning helped solidify the details of the learning, paper reading helped readers better understand abstract concepts. Better put, concrete memory from reading involves the who and when, whereas abstract concepts tend to lean towards where and why. “Digital screens almost seem to create a sort of tunnel vision where you’re focusing on just the information you’re getting this moment, not the broader context,” Kaufman said.

The cognitive impact is quite different from that created through reading a printed text that appears as a whole, embodied in the structure of an issue that can be manipulated, marked and exposed to others in very easy ways. Scrolling through digital text impairs the comprehension process (Connell et al., 2012).

Of course, this is a problem!

This has caught the attention of academics like Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She states “I don’t worry that we’ll become dumb because of the Internet, but I worry we will not use our most preciously acquired deep reading processes…[When] confronted with a digital glut of immediate information that requires and receives less and less intellectual effort, many new (and many older) readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read.” Reading from the screen might feel more efficient (seems faster) but is less effective.

What have we learned from all this? Although, of course, we’re realistic enough to know that online reading is flourishing and we acknowledge that it has particular conveniences, it is critical that we are aware how it impacts comprehension and learning. After all, multiple studies clearly show that our brains process and store ‘offline’ information better then digital information. In other words, when you need to learn something, it’s better to read from paper than from a screen!

References

Baron, N. (2016). Why digital reading is no substitute for print. New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/135326/digital-reading-no-substitute-print

Connell, C., Bayliss, L., & Farmer, W. (2012). Effects of eBook readers and tablet computers on reading comprehension. International Journal of Instructional Media. 39(2), 131–140.

Cull, B. W. (2011). Reading revolutions: Online digital text and implications for reading in academe. First Monday, 16(6). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3340

Jabr, F. (2013). The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/

Kaufman, G., & Flanagan, M. (2016, May). High-low split: Divergent cognitive construal levels triggered by digital and non-digital platforms. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2773-2777. Retrieved from http://www.tiltfactor.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/2016-tiltfactor-chi-digital-nondigital.pdf

Mangen, A., Walgermo, B. R., & Brønnick, K. (2013). Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 61-68. Retrieved from http://www.ore.org.pt/filesobservatorio/pdf/ReadingonPaperVsScreencomputerScreen.pdf

Santana, A. D., Livingstone, R. M., & Cho, Y. Y. (2013). Print readers recall more than do online readers. Newspaper Research Journal, 34(2), 78-92. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/6572113/Print_Readers_Recall_More_Than_Do_Online_Readers?auto=download

Singer, L, M., & Alexander, P. A. (2017; Online first). Reading on paper and digitally: What the past decades of empirical research reveal. Review of Educational Research, 1–35. doi:10.3102/0034654317722961

Alexander, P. A., & Singer, L. M. (2017). A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/students-learning-education-print-textbooks-screens-study-2017-10?international=true&r=US&IR=T

[1] Copied from this blog from Pedro de Bruyckere. Be aware here that what learners self-report about their learning is seldom if at all related to what they actually learn. Learners, especially young learners or novices in an area are notoriously poor when it comes to judgement-of-learning. One factor that plays a role here is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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