Guest Post: Do Students Lose Depth in Digital Reading?

6201381800_124be760c2_bDo students learn as much when they read digitally as they do in print?

For both parents and teachers, knowing whether computer-based media are improving or compromising education is a question of concern. With the surge in popularity of e-books, online learning and open educational resources, investigators have been trying to determine whether students do as well when reading an assigned text on a digital screen as on paper.

The answer to the question, however, needs far more than a yes-no response.

Reading in print versus digitally

In my research, I have compared the ways in which we read in print and onscreen. Between 2013 and 2015, I gathered data from 429 university students drawn from five countries (the U.S., Japan, Germany, Slovenia and India).

The students in my study reported that print was aesthetically more enjoyable, saying things such as “I like the smell of paper” or that reading in print is “real reading.” What’s more, print gave them a sense of where they were in the book – they could “see” and “feel” where they were in the text.


Print is easier on the eyes

Print was also judged to be easier on the eyes and less likely to encourage multitasking. Almost half the participants complained about eyestrain from reading digitally (“my eyes burn”), and 67 percent indicated they were likely to multitask while reading digitally (compared with 41 percent when reading print).

At the same time, respondents praised digital reading on a number of counts, including the ability to read in the dark, ease of finding material (“plenty of quick information”), saving paper and even the fact they could multitask while reading.

Measuring learning

But the bigger question is whether students are learning as much when they read onscreen.

A number of researchers have sought to measure learning by asking people to read a passage of text, either in print or on a digital device, and then testing for comprehension.

Most studies have found that participants scored about the same when reading in each medium, though a few have indicated that students performed better on tests when they read in print.

The problem, however, with learning-measurement studies is that their notion of “learning” has tended to be simplistic. Reading passages and answering questions afterwards may be a familiar tool in standardized testing, but tells us little about any deeper level of understanding.

Some researchers are beginning to pose more nuanced questions, including one scholar who has considered what happens when people read a story in print or on a digital device and are then asked to reconstruct the plot sequence. The answer: Print yielded better results.

Another aspect of learning is to see how outcomes differ when students are doing their reading in less prescriptive experimental conditions. One study let students choose how much time to spend when reading on each platform. The researchers found that participants devoted less time to reading the passage onscreen – and performed less well on the subsequent comprehension test.

This finding is hardly surprising, given the tendency so many of us have to skim and search when going online, rather than reading slowly and carefully. In my study, one student commented,

“It takes more time to read the same number of pages in print comparing to digital.”

Another complained,

“It takes me longer because I read more carefully.”

Critical thinking and reading

How does the learning question relate to educational goals? There is much buzz today about wanting students to be good at critical thinking. Definitions of that goal are elusive, but it’s pretty clear they involve being able to understand complex ideas, evaluate evidence, weigh alternative perspectives and construct justifiable arguments.

To become proficient in critical thinking – at least in a literate society – students need to be able to handle text. The text may be long, complex or both. To make sense of it, students cannot skim, rush ahead or continually get distracted.

So, does reading in print versus onscreen build critical thinking skills?


Reading helps develop critical thinking skills.

The comprehension studies we talked about earlier tell us little about the kind of reading we recognize as necessary for serious contemplation or analysis. An alternative approach, at least for starters, is asking students about their digital and paper-based reading patterns – much as physicians ask for histories (along with physicals and lab tests) to figure out what ails their patients.

While my own study didn’t directly measure learning, it did query students about their reading patterns and preferences. The responses to some of my questions were particularly revealing.

When asked on which medium they felt they concentrated best, 92 percent replied “print.” For long academic readings, 86 percent favored print. Participants also reported being more likely to reread academic materials if they were in print.

What’s more, a number of students indicated they believed print was a better medium for learning. One said,

“It’s easier to focus.”

Others stated,

“[I] feel like the content sticks in the head more easily” and

“I feel like I understand it more.”

By contrast, in talking about digital screens, students noted “danger of distraction” and “no concentration.”

Obviously, student perceptions are not the same thing as measurable learning outcomes. And my research didn’t probe connections between reading platforms and critical thinking.

However, a pattern did emerge: Print stood out as the medium for doing serious work.

Digital is convenient and cheaper

At the same time, we cannot ignore other factors impacting students' decisions about what reading platform to chose for school work.

Convenience is one big consideration: More than 40 percent of participants in my study mentioned convenience (including easy access to materials) as what they liked most about reading onscreen.

Money is another variable. Students were highly conscious about differential prices for print and digital versions of reading materials, with cost often driving choice. As one student put it,

“Cost rules everything around me.”

Many students revealed a mismatch between finances and learning. When queried about which reading platform they would choose if cost were the same, 87 percent said “print” for academic work.

Adapting to digital learning

We also need to keep in mind the growing trend for universities to adapt their curricula to fit the proverbial “procrustean” bed of a digital world – a world tailor-made for skimming, scanning and using the “find” function rather than reading slowly and thoughtfully.


How can digital be adapted?

Professors now toy with ditching long or complex reading assignments in favor of short (or more straightforward) ones, moving closer to digital reading patterns in the nonacademic world. This world hypes condensed versions of texts and shorter reading material that is bite-sized to begin with.

The question then is how can universities help students read text thoughtfully, reflectively, and without distraction on digital devices?

One key could be adaptation. Research suggests students may be overconfident about what they are understanding when they read digitally. Teaching them to be mindful in their digital reading (for instance, by writing down key words from the reading) may help in learning.

Another form of adaptation is happening in the realm of digital hardware and software. Modern screens cause less eyestrain, and annotation programs continue to improve. Some digital reading devices now come with tools enabling them to digitally approximate physical page flipping and multiple place-marking.

However, in my view, while short-and-to-the-point may be a good fit for digital consumption, it’s not the sort of reading likely to nurture the critical thinking we still talk about as a hallmark of university education.

reposted under a CC license from The ConversationThe Conversation

images by  PHSlibraryH. MoonITU PicturesMegMoggington

About Naomi Baron (2 Articles)
Professor Baron is interested in electronically-mediated communication, writing and technology, the history of English, language acquistion in children, and higher education. A former Guggenheim Fellow, Fulbright Fellow, and Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, she has published eight books. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World won the English-Speaking Union’s Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Award for 2008. Her newest book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (2015), will appear in paperback in September 2016 and has been translated into Chinese .
Contact: Website

7 Comments on Guest Post: Do Students Lose Depth in Digital Reading?

  1. Part of the issue with this study is the age bracket they are looking at. Many students currently in university are barely at the age bracket where reading on electronic devices started to become common. The first ipad wasn’t produced until 2010 – 6 years ago, but current university students would have been in grades 7-11 – already steeped in learning by print. The real test would come in the next 5 years with students who have learned their entire lives on electronic devices.

  2. Smart Debut Author // 22 July, 2016 at 11:29 am // Reply

    Jesus. Give it a rest.

  3. The older research has been debunked on this website.

    And the details of your research are not provided. It is difficult to accept conclusions since all pre-existing research has been poorly conducted.

  4. Are digital devices ereaders or just tablets. It always feels like ereaders are lumped with tablets and phones or even web pages but they aren’t the same. E-readers are more like books and don’t have the distractions of tablets or phones.

    • Thank you, Sean! I have been reading mostly digitally on e-ink readers since the first Kindle which I got in early 2008, and do not see any difference in retention or comprehension between the two platforms. While I do read more fiction than non-fiction, I still read a considerable amount of the latter. I’m way past college age so obviously learned to read in print books. The only thing I find print better for is illustrations and maps, and when those are necessary, I pull up the book on my iPad to see them better.

    • That’s not relevant for this article. Digital textbooks are read on laptops and PCs and not on eink readers.

  5. Print was also judged to be easier on the eyes and less likely to encourage multitasking.

    An obvious way to discourage multitasking is to turn off WiFi. Without Internet access, multitasking is rather difficult.

    Textbooks with a lot of visuals, especially STEM textbooks, are horrible to view on 6″ readers. On the 9.7″ Kindle DX, which more closely approximates the size of a hardbound textbook, the reading experience is much more user-friendly for textbooks with a lot of visuals.

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