My friend Joanne was packing her youngest child off to college this month and wrestling with a modern dilemma: Is it better to buy textbooks in digital form or old-fashioned print? One of her son’s professors was recommending an online text for a business course: lighter, always accessible and seriously cheaper ($88 vs. $176 for a 164-page book). But Joanne’s instinct was that her son would “learn better” from a printed volume, free of online distractions, and with pages he could dog-ear, peruse in any order, and inscribe with marginal notes. Her son was inclined to agree.
Many of us book lovers cherish the tactile qualities of print, but some of this preference is emotional or nostalgic. Do reading and note-taking on paper offer any measurable advantages for learning? Given the high cost of hard-backed textbooks, is it wiser to save the money and the back strain by going digital?
You might think that, decades into the digital revolution, we would have a clear answer to this question. Wrong. Earlier this year educational psychologist Patricia Alexander, a literacy scholar at the University of Maryland, published a thorough review of recent research on the topic. She was “shocked,” she says, to find that out of 878 potentially relevant studies published between 1992 and 2017, only 36 directly compared reading in digital and in print and measured learning in a reliable way. (Many of the other studies zoomed in on aspects of e-reading, such as eye movements or the merits of different kinds of screens.)
Aside from pointing up a blatant need for more research, Alexander’s review, co-authored with doctoral student Lauren Singer and appearing in Review of Educational Research, affirmed at least one practical finding: if you are reading something lengthy – more than 500 words or more than a page of the book or screen – your comprehension will likely take a hit if you’re using a digital device. The finding was supported by numerous studies and held true for students in college, high school and grade school.
Research suggests that the explanation is at least partly the greater physical and mental demands of reading on a screen: the nuisance of scrolling, and the tiresome glare and flicker of some devices. There may be differences in the concentration we bring to a digital environment, too, where we are accustomed to browsing and multitasking. And some researchers have observed that working your way through a print volume leaves spatial impressions that stick in your mind (for instance, the lingering memory of where a certain passage or diagram appeared in a book).
Alexander and Singer have done their own studies of the digital versus print question. In a 2016 experiment they asked 90 undergraduates to read short informational texts (about 450 words) on a computer and in print. Due to the length, no scrolling was required, but there still was a difference in how much they absorbed. The students performed equally well in describing the main idea of the passages no matter the medium, but when asked to list additional key points and recall further details, the print readers had the edge.