Is reading from paper better than from a screen?
There is a common tendency in the older generations to say something negative about the younger one – lazy is the most common one I have heard, perhaps because I am lazy. But it is equally true that we do have it easier regarding some aspects at least, and the main reason for that is technology. Growing up, I have heard that my dad went to school walking through snow for 15 miles; I went on a bicycle – technology! Later, I heard the same story from friends’ parents; it’s always the father, the mother goes to the school around the corner. On a similar level, my mother was collecting match boxes as a kid – she had hundreds of them from all over the world; I collected lighters – technology! And I gave up after twenty or so. These are deliberately ridiculous examples, but technology plays a huge role, and the main one is the very obvious one: all those mobile devices.
In today’s post, let us look at the effects of reading from our phones/tablets (as well as laptops/monitors) as compared to paper from books and hand outs/prints. Why is that, you ask? Well, the general attitude is that screens are not as productive as paper – we supposedly read slower, are less focused, get tired faster, and remember less; but we are also awkwardly positioned and ruin our posture, our eyes, and deprive ourselves of sleep at night. As it happens, I’ve been telling my students to print their material instead of reading it off their phones for the last two years – but I never really looked at any supporting research to back my claims; I only based it on my own experience. The truth of the matter is that there is relatively little research in this field – very little in fact;1 and given the move to digital learning, it is worthwhile to have a deeper look at what the studies that do exist tell us about our general attitude towards the subject. So the objective of this post is twofold: I am interested in our ability to read and learn as compared between screen and paper; and I am interested in the effect it has on us physically.
The general attitude
I have mentioned that the general attitude is that reading from a screen is not as productive as reading from a piece of paper or a book. Interestingly, the first article I have read on this issue did a study precisely on what we think is better and how that compares to the reality of the matter. The participants of this study were asked what their preference was – and all of them preferred paper over screens. And yet, while measuring their brain activity (EEG) and eye movement, as well as answering a few comprehension questions, the researchers found that there was effectively no real difference in their ability to read from either screen or paper: “Our findings thus indicate that people’s subjective evaluation of digital reading media must be dissociated from the cognitive and neural effort expended in online information processing while reading from such devices.” Not only that, but the study also affirmed that older people experienced a “reduction of online reading effort . . . when reading with a tablet” in comparison to paper; and cited as reason “the backlighting of the display, thus increasing the contrast between text and background.” So even though we might think that we prefer paper over screen, the study shows that the experience itself is negligibly different (at least in scientific terms) and it is most likely our “general cultural attitude” towards “digital reading media” that needs adapting.2
How do screens affect our learning?
While there is no evidence that we require more effort, some studies do suggest that our learning ability drops (significantly) from reading on screens. In one study (2013) a groups of students was divided into two, each given two text in either paper format or screen. The finding of this research was that “students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.”3 The students could remember what they read and where they read it, which leads the researchers to believe (and I suspected this from my own experience) that turning through pages helps memorising where something was read. This is absent from a screen. (On a personal note, I find that I often remember where on a page something was written, which makes finding it again when writing a paper much easier than when you have googled an article).
One of the most comprehensive studies from 2012 asked its participants for a preference as well. In this study there was only minimally higher preference for paper of screen. The interesting part of this study is that it also took into account what the students thought of their performance; as well as that conditions were set on the amount of time the participants had. On 2 texts, they could as much time as they wanted; on another 2, they were allowed a set amount of time; and on 1 text they were interrupted while thinking they had free time (yes, researchers are little evil).
It shouldn’t be surprising, seeing the previous study above, that reading comprehension on paper was higher than from screen – except for that one evil trick of interrupting the participants. This is truly an interesting phenomenon – why the deviation? If paper is inherently better than screen, then it should be better in all the set conditions. And so, the researchers conclude that “Technological factors are probably not the cause for the found screen inferiority.” But there is another point that they had found, which of great interest. Students were asked about their performance, and it would seem that students reading from paper had a better understanding of how they would perform in the test than those reading from a screen – except, again, for the interrupted test. Finally, the researchers also showed that the students’ preferences played a dominant role in both: their predictions of how well they did, as well as the actual results.4
- The top result on google is from 1992 and there was research in this field already in the 1980s. But of course the monitors are no longer the same, nor did they have mobile devices as we enjoy them today – so a little outdated for my purposes. More importantly, in the 1980s a select few (relatively) had a computer at home, while most of my students have a smartphone, and I suspect each has a laptop/computer at home to tick away on their assignments the day before submission (yeah, I doubt that will ever change).
- Full article can be found here.
- The article can be found here, if your institution has a subscription.
- The article is available if you have a subscription, here.