It's easier to learn on paper.
Reading is necessary for living, learning, working and so much more.
Until the latter part of the 20th century, reading was generally done on paper. But with the arrival of the computer, and more recently devices like smart phones and eReaders, many people are doing some of their reading on screens. And while there is no question about the convenience or scope of the information available online, experts are discovering that if you are trying to learn something, in many cases it is easier to do using printed documents.
All around the world, researchers and experts in literacy, memory and cognition, verbal learning, neuroscience and human communication are examining the question of whether information is better assimilated by reading on paper or on screen. Jakob Nielsen, a web usability expert noted that: “The online medium lends itself to a more superficial processing of information, you’re just surfing the information; it’s not deep learning.”1
In his article, The Decade Google Made You Stupid, author and New School University professor Douglas Rushkoff refers to a similar phenomenon, which he calls Internet ADD (attention deficit disorder). He points out that we don’t slow down to read things or go into issues in depth2 when we read from a computer. We skim the page, often while doing something else, and fail to assimilate much at all.
A number of studies have focused on the question of learning on screen.
These include a recent Kindle DX pilot project, sponsored by Amazon at seven universities throughout the U.S. The in-class experiment yielded some interesting (albeit disappointing for the sponsor) findings about the eReader. At the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, 75-80% of participating MBA students said they would not recommend the Kindle for in-class learning. Michael Koenig, Darden’s director of MBA operations, explained that the students felt the eReader was too rigid for use in the fast-paced classroom environment, noting that you can’t move between pages, documents, charts and graphs simply or easily enough compared to the paper alternatives.3
Meanwhile, at Princeton University, students felt that using the eReader “somewhat worsened the classroom experience” compared to printed textbooks. They admitted that the absence of paper documents made group discussions difficult and that it was hard to go back and review e-materials later in the semester. They also felt that the inability to efficiently take notes lessened retention.4
In another study at Reykjavik University, many students (40%) indicated that while “[books and computers] are different tools and both are equally useful,” 70% of survey respondents said it was preferable and easier to learn from books than from a computer.5
So, why is it that people seem to prefer reading from printed documents and feel that they learn better? A paper published by Rank Xerox Research Centre in Cambridge6 corroborates the notion that readers like to be able to take notes and highlight passages. They also find printed pages easier to navigate than an electronic or online document that requires scrolling and can offer numerous distractions. According to researchers from Wayne State University, reading on paper is actually 10-30% percent faster than reading online, in part because it is easier to track where the reader is on the page.7 The Cambridge study further concluded that to learn, you need to summarize, and to summarize you need to understand a topic in-depth, which is often more difficult online.
Paper has been around for almost two millennia and it has proven itself an effective and enduring method of transmitting information. In fact, learning from books continues to be one of the building blocks of a child’s future. According to a new study published in Research in Social Stratification, children who grow up in households with many books go further in school than those without books, and this regardless of what country they live in or the socio-economic or educational level of their parents. Conversely, another study of public school students in North Carolina suggests that access to home computers between fifth and eighth grades seems to actually reduce a child’s scores on math and reading tests, likely because of the distraction they provide from homework.8
While there is no doubt that computers are an invaluable part of the modern educational experience, and eReaders may eventually find their place in the classroom, today’s students seem to still prefer to study from the printed page. And many experts agree that paper is a more user friendly not to mention more effective learning tool.9
1 What Gets Lost When our Finances Go Paperless, Barbara Kiviat
2 The Decade Google Made You Stupid, Douglas Rushkoff
3 Darden Shares Results of Kindle Experiment
4 The E-reader pilot at Princeton
5 Books vs. e-material What is the deal? (information accessed through paid subscription)
6 A Comparison of Reading Paper and On-Line Documents, Kenton O’Hara and Abigail Sellen, Rank Xerox Research Centre in Cambridge, 1997
7 Reading Online or on Paper: Which is Faster? Sri H. Kurniawan and Panayiotis Zaphiris, Wayne State University, 2001
8 Growing up with Books Boosts Child’s Education Attainment
9 Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement, Charles T. Clotfelter, Helen F. Ladd and Jacob L. Vigdor, Duke University, July 29, 2008