We are in a society where digital reading material has become the norm. Our generation consists of digital natives. They have grown up with smartphones, laptops, e-readers, and tablets.
It just so happens that a wave of action is moving to make digital media the primary mode of study. Policymakers, teachers, parents, and even students themselves are moving education to their screens. Classroom technologies are booming, and now school-issued laptops and iPads are an everyday thing.
The state of California issued a law in 2009 that required all college textbooks to be made available electronically by 2020. In 2011, the state of Florida required all public schools to convert their textbooks into digital formats.
The natural assumption, in this case, is that digital media translate to better learning outcomes. But that isn’t guaranteed. Actually, some research has shown the opposite: in some cases, print media, or the good old books, lead to better learning comprehension.
A study done in 1992 showed that students comprehended material in printed texts better when the text in question was more than one page in length. For example, say you see a long article online that’s more than one page in length. You’re more likely to understand that material better in printed form than in digital form. The most likely reason for this is the effect of scrolling on reading comprehension. It has been shown to be disruptive.
Another recent set of studies tested the ability of college students to understand information on screens as well as printed form.
Students were first asked to rate their preferences when it came to the medium. They were then asked to read two passages of text, one online and one in text. They were then expected to complete some tasks: one was to describe the key ideas of the texts, list the key points that were covered, and point out additional relevant content they could remember. Once they completed these tasks, they were then asked to rate their own performance on comprehension.
Various kinds of data were collected on these tests, including the reading time. Some interesting revelations were made.
To start with, most of the students preferred to read in digital format. They also read much faster when they read online, as compared to print. They also judged their comprehension as much better online.
The findings were shocking in that the comprehension actually turned out to be better for print, as compared to digital. This was especially true for very specific questions. With general questions it didn’t matter what medium was used.
What does this tell us? There are certainly some new perspectives that can be gained from this:
Why are you reading?
Why you’re reading matters. Are you reading for fun or for an important test that’s coming up? If you’re casually browsing the day’s newspaper, then you probably don’t need a very high comprehension level. However, if you’re reading for your finals, you’ll need to go for the highest comprehension levels.
The kind of task you’re expected to undertake also matters. The studies found out that for general information purposes it really didn’t matter what medium was used. However, for specific questions that require deeper comprehension, print outdid the screens.
Try reading slower
In those studies, there were some undergraduates who actually showed an improvement when moving from print to digital. These students turned out to be much slower readers than their peers. They actually read slower when reading online than they did when reading from books. You can use this to your advantage and read more slowly when you read on a screen. It’s easy to fall prey to the ease of scrolling, but don’t fall for it.
A Final Word
There could be a whole host of reasons why you’re going paperless. Digital is usually both cheaper and more environment friendly. However, we shouldn’t completely ignore print while we still have it. There is a certain level of engagement we enjoy with our books that we may not enjoy with our screens. We should therefore not kick them out entirely.
We understand; online reading will only become more prevalent with time. Perhaps print media will even become completely obsolete eventually. Digital media also has certain advantages, such as faster access and a greater breadth of information. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the solution to all our problems. There is a real cost to discounting our books.