Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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I am shocked, shocked

A new study shows that students learn way more effectively from print textbooks than screens

As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it….Nonetheless, some key findings emerged that shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content:

Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.

Reading was significantly faster online than in print.

Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.

Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.

The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).

But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.

Having for years watched students completely fail to use online resources to actually understand math, and having had a front-row seat at the total inability of online resources to even remotely equal the usability of a textbook, I am 100% unsurprised by these results. (There is an exception: for rapidly looking up some detail, it’s hard to beat google.)

I am also completely unsurprised that this effect is visible outside of math.

Offhand I would suggest that “reading significantly faster online” translates smoothly to “lower comprehension of material.” Speed is not the point when wading through General Physics, or even a Sociology text. Speed is actually detrimental. Is that not obvious? How is that not obvious?

In non-math classes, I do my best to encourage struggling students to take notes out of the book. Because this will SLOW THEM DOWN and help them PAY ATTENTION, as well as encouraging a focus on what is actually important.

If required to take written notes from an online text, my strong suspicion is that students’ comprehension would go way up.

Anyway, if you find this sort of thing relevant and / or interesting, by all means click through and read the whole thing.

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5 Comments I am shocked, shocked

  1. Evelyn M. Hill

    That makes me sad, actually. Back in Ye Olde Days, I used to have to lug several textbooks with me from class to class. Biochemistry, Immunology, Genetics… these were not paperbacks. (But hey, if you needed to prop a door open, they were really handy.) Some instructors wanted you to have the textbooks with you. Sometimes I needed to study between classes. These frickin’ things were MURDER on my back.
    I was just thinking the other day how kids these days have it easier not having to do that. (As well as not having to walk to school uphill both ways through a snowstorm… yada yada get offa my lawn, etc.)

  2. mona

    Offhand I would suggest that “reading significantly faster online” translates smoothly to “lower comprehension of material.”

    That was my first thought. But of course they need to test it in the study.

    Oh, the outlining we did in high school! “In your own words, blah blah blah…” But of course, so helpful for comprehension.

  3. Rachel

    Evelyn, as far as I can recollect, I ignored teachers’ instructions to bring textbooks to class every day. I carried only the ones I expected to actually use. These days, even for those, I’d get a wheeled backpack. I used to think those were for wimps. Now I think they’re for anyone with back trouble or anyone expecting to someday have back trouble; eg, everyone.

    Mona, yep, I seriously learned to outline as a real learning tool rather late — not in high school. But it’s hard to think of a better first step for anyone wanting to improve their comprehension and/or grades.

  4. Pete Mack

    Reading speed maybe part of it. But I suspect that the presentation matters too: ink on paper has very high contrast and resolution, and you can see a lot more information at once on a hardcover page than on a laptop screen. You have more available brainpower when you aren’t wasting any in decoding text.

  5. Rachel

    I don’t know, but I agree that the small amount of content on a typical screen at one time is a perennial source of annoyance for me.

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