Home » Ebooks, Ebooks in Education » A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens

A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens

24 October 2017

From Business Insider:

Today’s students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.

Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks.

In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.

Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.

As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our 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.

. . . .

Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.

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. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.

. . . .

Students first rated their medium preferences. 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.

Across the studies, the texts differed in length, and we collected varying data (e.g., reading time). Nonetheless, some key findings emerged that shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content:

  • 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).
  • But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.

Link to the rest at Business Insider and thanks to Mercy for the tip.

Ebooks, Ebooks in Education

14 Comments to “A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens”

  1. Any bets the devices weren’t locked down so the students could distract themselves checking their messages/chatting instead of just reading?

    Why trad-pub isn’t going to like this report:

    Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.
    Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
    Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.

    The subjective stuff they hope people will believe:

    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).
    But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.

    The four words in there they really don’t want anyone noticing:

    The medium didn’t matter …

    • Some of the digital textbooks I’ve seen require you to go to other places on the ‘Net to get necessary information or to see experiments or examples of problems being worked. In those cases, I wonder if the jump doesn’t break concentration and affect retention of material. YMMV.

  2. Is there a difference in learning material presented on a dedicated e-ink device versus, tablet, versus laptop?

  3. Smart Debut Author

    “Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.”

    “These screens aren’t the droids you’re looking for…”

    😀

  4. But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.

    Doesn’t particularly surprise me, as I’ve noticed that my retention for digital media is lower than print. OTOH, what I read digitally is fun genre fiction, and what I read in print is generally denser material (nonfiction), which requires more effort to understand.

    I agree that the medium (i.e., laptop vs e-ink) and whether students needed to go “outside” of the text may also have had an impact.

    We’re still learning about the best approach to digital learning, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we get the best results from a method that is substantially different from our methods of digital entertainment. I expect that we’ve experienced similar shifts in learning when we moved from (mostly) hands-on to (mostly) books.

    • The fact is, if you’re scrolling through text, it’s a lot easier to lose your place. Lose your place and you either skip details, have to find your place and reread, or you don’t even notice you missed something.

      I have no doubts that reading on a scrolling page will result in lower recall of details just based on my own experiences.

      If you change that to a fixed page that has to be turned to move, I think it’s a lot easier to retain the info, and I think this because *for me* when I recall something I read, I also usually recall where on a page I read it. The actual position of the text on the page becomes a crutch for my brain to help it remember what I saw. Really can’t rely on that kind of memory when you have scrollable pages. It just doesn’t work the same at all.

      If even a few of the participants tap into memory the same way, then it’s going to lower the score for the group as a whole. So maybe *some* people will do just fine with scrolling pages, but some people definitely won’t.

  5. I wonder just how effective digital math books are, when you have to go back and forth to paper to work problems.

    I can’t see learning math or physics in a pure digital environment.

  6. Smart Debut Author

    It’s awful easy to confuse one’s own decades-burned-in preferences and prejudices with “facts” about which media works best for everyone else.

    Here’s a real fact:

    Your brain rewires itself over time to prefer — and be most efficient with — whichever media you use the most.

    After three decades of reading paper, I found ebooks annoying at first. They were fiendishly convenient, so I ended up doing most of my opportunistic reading on them, but I still preferred paper. Or thought I did. But after 300-400 ebooks read, I was surprised to discover that I had come to find paper awkward and unpleasant to deal with. I’d buy a highly coveted book in print, anticipating a pleasurable read, only to end up chucking the dead-tree version after a couple chapters and buying the same title in digital.

    My middle-school-age daughters, having grown up in a digital world, had no such burned-in “old dog/new tricks” issues with e-reading/e-learning. They’ve always done most of their math homework on the computer, and find copying the results to paper to turn it in a boring afterthought.

    Which is why I find these agenda-driven “studies have shown” articles about the inferiority of screen-reading ludicrous on so many levels.

    • Ashe Elton Parker

      I agree re ludicrous, mainly because just by what they’re finding, I can tell they’re testing people who grew up with or are most familiar with paper book learning, not younger students who are far more likely to have done most or all their learning on electronic devices.

    • Where’s the LIKE button for Smart Debut Author’s post?

      Given that learning paradigms differ from student to student, I find the claim of more effectiveness ludicrous. Only a дурачить would make that claim.

  7. I much prefer ebooks for fiction and narrative non-fiction (hardly every buy physical any more).

    But for non-narrative non-fiction, like textbooks, I personally find the “big piece of paper” with aspects of the topic much more useful, whether that’s a big old chart, or a 2-page paper book spread, or whatever. It allows me to start with an overview on a topic that dives into details while letting me roam up, down, and sideways in context.

    No doubt this is idiosyncratic, but I’m surely not alone. A big enough (lightweight) digital version would work just as well, I imagine, but that doesn’t exist. I look forward to digital devices that can be rolled up like scrolls and unrolled for very large single pages.

    • I’m willing to bet that at least one version of such a rollable scroll-type ereader would be called “Papyrus.”

  8. I have no problem believing that paper is better for reading and note taking for technical and educational content, but then I’m the kind of person who write all over a book while studying. My biggest complaint? Paper textbooks are too GLOSSY. Seriously, I got more headaches in college trying to read the textbooks in libraries and my office because of overhead lights than I did actually studying.

    That? That appears to be a detail they completely overlooked here, despite glossy pages being nearly ubiquitous in educational textbooks.

  9. Just Another Curmudgeon

    I read nonfiction for work all the time, on my 29-inch monitor. I can see whole pages, and move page by page, and they don’t pile up all over my desk while I write. and I can keyword search to find exactly what i need. Ebooks for the win.

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