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Digital Versus Print: Which Mode Is Better for Learning?

Each method has certain advantages and drawbacks. Do you know what they are?

Key points

  • Reading effectiveness can be assessed in multiple ways.
  • Printed texts are preferred for recall and comprehension.
  • Digital screens do not significantly reduce or improve reading time or critical thinking.
  • Modality is inconsequential when interest is high, such as when reading for pleasure.
 Aliis Sinisalu/Unsplash
Source: Aliis Sinisalu/Unsplash

We are all faced with choices when it comes to how we read. Some of us prefer the tactile experience of turning pages in a printed book, while others would rather have the compact, mobile convenience of digital tools like smartphones or tablets.

If you try to convince a print reader to switch to digital, you will probably be met with strong resistance. Demand that a reader must give up their tablet, and they will likely reply that print books are “old fashion and cumbersome.” Regardless of preference, most readers fail to consider one of the most important goals of reading, increasing knowledge. Do we really know which media type is best?

Researchers for years have debated the educational merits and liabilities of each medium with ambiguous results. New meta-analytic research, the type that aggregates experimental findings, reveals some very specific trends that help resolve the digital versus print debate and how each approach contributes to learning. First, consider that reading effectiveness is measured in numerous ways. In other words, before we can determine which reading method is best, we must break learning into at least five categories: recall of information, comprehension of material, vocabulary building, reading efficiency, and how effectively the material prompts critical thinking on the reading topic. How we read impacts each measure differently.

Recall

The ability to remember what you read is usually referred to as “recall.” Recall does not imply a deep understanding of the material or the ability to apply the knowledge gained from reading, but it does mean the skill of recognizing specific facts, dates, or names from reading. Generally, readers recall more details when reading from texts than when reading from screens (Singer & Alexander, 2017). The reason why print reading is better is not well understood, but device distractibility could potentially inhibit focus and recall ability.

Comprehension

Understanding what we read is usually measured by the ability to answer multiple-choice or open-ended questions about reading content. Comprehension also means making connections between different paragraphs and determining main ideas. Comprehension is more of a concern for children than adults. When addressing young children’s reading (ages 1-8), we must be concerned with the distracting nature of digital media in the form of online dictionaries and similar content enhancement links (like pictures or videos).

The strict comparison of print to digital reveals that digitization is related to lower comprehension scores compared to print books (Furenes et al., 2021). Digital, unlike print, offers the opportunity for real-time digital enhancements, such as charts and graphs, which may increase comprehension. However, when adults intervene and read with a child, book reading is more effective than the digital book enhancements that kids might use independently.

Vocabulary

Despite lower comprehension from digital sources for kids, reading from computers and tablets does improve vocabulary more so than from books, primarily because children (and adults) can look up words in glossaries that have usage examples contextualizing the unfamiliar words. Thus, if the goal is comprehension, we should consider print resources; however, if learning new words is the primary focus, a tablet or a computer may be a better choice.

Reading time

How long it takes to read is another important consideration. The time devoted can be assessed as reading efficiency, meaning the ratio of time to reading comprehension, otherwise known as how quickly we can learn. When we compare reading times across devices, minimal advantages are found for print, but in practical terms, device reading is just as efficient, especially if we consider personal preferences. In other words, if forced to use a method we don’t like, reading time may increase and reduce efficiency.

Critical thinking

Another important consideration is how accurately we assess mastery of the content we read. Sometimes we overestimate the knowledge gained, which tends to lead to less re-reading and fewer knowledge gains because we believe we are mastering the material when in reality, we are not. When we underestimate our mastery, we might waste time re-reading the material or shift concentration because we are anxious about not “getting it.” Thus, it helps to know if our reading impressions are consistent with what is happening. Print and digital comparisons reveal slight advantages for print on this important variable based on the perception that more “mind wandering” occurs when reading digitally than in print (Clinton, 2019)

Finally, we should realize that differences exist among various other reading characteristics. Consideration should be given to the purpose of reading (work, school, or pleasure), the genre and material topic, level of interest, age and expertise of the reader, as well as how reading mastery is measured. While all of these factors are important considerations when determining which reading modality is best, we can generally conclude that how we read is of less importance when there is a high level of interest, topic familiarity, and when we read for pleasure.

References

Clinton, V. (2019). Reading from paper compared to screens: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Research in Reading, 42(2), 288-325. DOI:10.1111/1467-9817.12269

Furenes, M., Kucirkova, N., & Bus, A. G. (2021). A comparison of children’s reading on paper versus screen: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 91(4), 483–517. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654321998074

Singer, L. & Alexander, P. (2017b). Reading on paper and digitally: What the past decades of empirical research reveal. Review of Educational Research, 87(6), 1007–1041 https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654317722961

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