November 13, 2021

Is print better than digital for learning?

Digital natives

Students today regard themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology such as smartphones, tablets, and e-readers.

Teachers, parents, and policymakers are all aware of the expanding influence of technology and have responded accordingly. More money has been invested in classroom technology, with pupils now receiving school-issued iPads and having access to e-textbooks. California lawmakers approved legislation in 2009 mandating all college textbooks to be available in electronic form by 2020; Florida lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 requiring public schools to convert all textbooks to digital forms.

Given this tendency, teachers, students, parents, and politicians may believe that students' familiarity with and liking for technology translates into improved learning results. But we've discovered that this isn't always the case.

As learning and text comprehension scholars, we have recently focused on the distinctions between reading print and digital media. While new types of classroom technology, such as digital textbooks, are more accessible and portable, it is incorrect to assume that digital reading will better benefit students just because they prefer it.


Speed comes at a cost

Our research has discovered a considerable disparity. Students stated that they preferred and performed better when they read on screens. However, their real performance suffered as a result.

For example, based on a review of data published since 1992, we discovered that pupils could better absorb material in print for texts longer than a page. This appears to be related to scrolling's disrupting effect on understanding. We were also shocked to hear that in their studies of printed and digital texts, few researchers assessed different levels of understanding or reported reading time.

To go deeper into these trends, we conducted three experiments on college students' capacity to grasp information on paper and via screens.

Students began by rating their preferred mediums. These students performed three tasks after reading two passages, one online and one in print: Describe the basic idea of the texts, list major points covered in the readings, and provide any other pertinent information they can recall. When they were finished, we asked them to rate their comprehension ability.

The length of the texts varied throughout the experiments, and we collected variable amounts of data (e.g., reading time). Nonetheless, some significant discoveries emerged that gave new light on the distinctions between reading printed and digital content:

The vast majority of students chose to read digitally.

Reading online was substantially faster than reading in print.

Students thought they understood more online than in print.

Contrary to popular belief, print reading improved overall comprehension over digital reading.

For general inquiries, the medium made no difference (like understanding the main idea of the text).

However, when it came to specific questions, individuals' understanding was considerably higher when they read printed materials.

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Photo by John Ray Ebora on Pexels

Putting the print in context

There are certain conclusions that may be drawn from these findings for legislators, teachers, parents, and students concerning the role of print in an increasingly digital society.

1. Consider the goal

We all read for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we're looking for a specific response to a query. Sometimes we wish to look through a newspaper for today's headlines.

When we're going to take up a paper or digital article or text, we should remember why we're reading. There will almost certainly be a difference in which medium works best for which objective.

In other words, there is no "one size fits all" solution.

2. Examine the task

One of the most constant outcomes from our research is that medium does not appear to matter for some tasks. If all pupils are supposed to do is understand and recall the main concept or substance of what they're reading, there's no advantage to using one media over another.

However, when the reading task requires greater involvement or deeper comprehension, kids may benefit from reading print. Teachers might inform students that the media they use may have an impact on their ability to understand the work. This insight has the potential to reduce the disparity we observed between students' perceptions of their performance and how they actually performed.

3. Reduce the speed

We were able to develop significant profiles of college students based on how they read and comprehended printed and digital texts in our third experiment.

Among those profiles, we discovered a small group of undergraduates who truly understood better after they switched from print to digital. This outlier group was differentiated by the fact that they read slower on the computer than they did in a book. In other words, they didn't take the convenience of interacting with digital text for granted. Using this chosen group as a model, students could be trained or instructed to combat the proclivity to skim through online texts.

4. Something that cannot be quantified

Going paperless may be advantageous for both economic and environmental reasons. However, there is certainly something significant that would be lost with the loss of print.

We have books and articles that we refer to on a daily basis in our academic lives. These valued readings' dog-eared pages feature lines of text engraved with queries or reflections. A same level of connection with a digital text is difficult to imagine. Print should definitely always have a part in students' academic lives, regardless of how electronically proficient they grow.

Of course, we understand that the trend toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don't want to minimize the many advantages of online texts, such as their breadth and speed of access.

Rather, we want to educate today's digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that dismissing the printed word's importance for learning and academic development comes with major costs and repercussions.

Source: Patricia A. Alexander, University of Maryland Professor of Psychology, and Lauren M. Singer Trakhman, University of Maryland Assistant Clinical Professor The enduring power of print in a digital world.

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