Neuroscientist Maryanne Wolfe has written books Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World and Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain on the differences in the brain between reading from print and digital, and often quotes MIT scholar Sherry Turkle, "we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating."
Technology is moving us from print to digital for immediately quantifiable reasons like cost and convenience, and the implication is there are no other differences between the formats as if reading text from a book printed on paper and reading text from a device with a screen are exactly the same thing. But are we ignoring something?
Educators should pay particular attention to recent research involving the comprehension differences between reading from print versus reading from screens. Studies conducted over very long periods involving over 180,000 college students combined indicate there are student comprehension differences in some specific situations and an overall preference for print. New research is looking into why this is.
When considering substituting digital instead of print because of cost or convenience, we need to ask if we are giving anything up, and if so, what is it?
We reviewed two recent studies that focus on comprehension differences and format preferences among college students, and made a list of the most surprising facts. We also reviewed a recent study that begins to unravel why the comprehension differences may exist.
Here are the surprising facts from recent research about reading from print:
Fact 1- Students want print, print the PDF's they get, and think they learn better when using print.
In a 2017 study involving 10,293 college students worldwide, a broad majority indicated a preference for print. There were 12 reading formats presented, and 78.8% of respondents chose print as the preferred reading format. This was strongest for younger college students and the strength of preference was less intense as academic rank increased.
When asked to respond to the statement “I prefer to print out my course readings rather than read them electronically”, 68.8% agreed or strongly agreed.
Further review identified print was preferred when the content was lengthy (more than 5 pages).
Also of importance, the study indicated that the students themselves thought they would do better if they studied using print.
Study: Academic reading format preferences and behaviors among university students worldwide: A comparative survey analysis. (2018) Diane Mizrachi, Alicia M. Salaz, Serap Kurbangolu, Joumana Boustany, on behalf of the ARFIS Research Group. [https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0197444&type=printable]
Fact 2- The “Digital Native” hypothesis that today's students have grown up in a digital world and won't perform as well using print simply isn't true.
A meta-analysis of reading comprehension studies was published in 2018 and examined research involving over 170,000 college participants from 2000-2017. Each study tested students by having them read the same text from a screen and in print, and then take a test on the content they read.
Not only did those reading from print perform better in testing than their peers reading from a screen, but surprisingly, as time progressed during the study period, the performance of print readers remained consistent over the nearly 20 years of the study. However, during the same period the proficiency of the screen readers gradually diminished, as the ones identified as "Digital Natives" entered the study. Theories as to why this is happening involve students developing habits early on that favor skimming instead of deep reading.
This contradicts the notion that today's students are “digital natives” and, therefore should do better from digital than print. Print is beneficial for course materials even today, and a strong inference can be made from this study that the presumed digital natives need print.
Study: Don't throw away your printed books: A meta analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. (2018) Pablo Delgado, Cristina Vargas, Rakafet Acketman, Ladislao Salmeron. [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X18300101 ]
Fact 3- Reading from print on paper vs a device with a screen like a Kindle are different experiences and impact what information is remembered.
An experiment was recently conducted where participants had to read a long mystery story on a Kindle and also on a pocket sized print book. The research conducted by Anne Mangen, et. al. was published in 2019.
Previous studies have indicated that long informative texts, or long texts with some narrative elements, are comprehended better when reading from print versus a screen, and this experiment focused on comprehension of a literary work read on a Kindle and in print.
The participants were then tested on various levels of comprehension such as engagement, recall, and ability to reconstruct the plot of the story. The results between the formats were considered identical overall, but there was an inferior performance from screen readers with respect to temporal and chronological details.
There are theories evolving as to why this may be, and also referenced in research Mangen, et. al., conducted in 2013. Reading from print is a multi sensory experience. Holding an object in your hand like a soft cover bound print, or a hard cover book, and turning pages while reading may be adding important reference points from which the brain can remember the words it processes. “Where was it on the page?” & “How far was it in the book?” are two kinds of physical, 3D reference points that screens are not able to provide when reading, which might be impacting remembering when things occurred in the story. The progress in a print book can be measured in the height of a stack, the weight of the pages in one hand versus the other, changing over time. Scrolling, swiping, or pushing a button to electronically turn a page on a device is a 2D action with less sensory involvement.
A more obvious reason is it's easier to focus when reading from print because there are no electronic distractions and because we recognize the text is fixed and the brain can focus more on the content. The "fixity" of the text on paper possibily requires less cognitive load when reading.
Studies are showing differences in testing outcomes between the formats favoring print and the next steps are to further understand why.
Study 1: Comparing Comprehension of a Long Text Read in Print Book and on Kindle: Where in the Text and When in the Story. (2019) Anne Mangen, Gerard Olivier, and Jean Luc Velay. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6384527/pdf/fpsyg-10-00038.pdf]
Study 2: Reading linear texts on paper versus computer screen: Effects on reading comprehension. (2013) nne Mangen, Bente R. Walgermo, Kolbjørn Brønnick. [https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0883035512001127 ]
Two recent studies involving over 170,000 and 10,000 college students each measuring comprehension differences & format preferences between reading from print vs screen have produced some very surprising results.
Students prefer to print out their course materials, especially for longer texts. PDF's greater than 5 pages were determined in one study to be the point where print is preferable. Students also prefer print because they think they learn better from it.
Also surprising is students who are considered to be "Digital Natives" perform consistently as well as those students from "less digital" eras when reading from print, but the meta analysis noticed that "Digital Natives" perform worse reading from screens than the students from "less digital" eras. This may be from overemphasis on skills that promote skimming instead of deep reading.
Researcher Anne Mangen, et. al., conducted an experiment to identify the differences between reading a literary work from print vs on a Kindle. Reading from print versus screens is beneficial for reading longer informational texts, or texts that are longer and may include narrative elements. For literary works, there is less of a difference between the formats except when testing for temporal or chronological details, in which case recalling those types of details is more successful when reading from print.
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