During the pandemic, many college professors abandoned assignments from printed textbooks and turned instead to digital texts or multimedia coursework.
As a professor of linguistics, I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning. Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text on-screen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?
The answers to both questions are often “no,” as I discuss in my book How We Read Now, released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
When reading texts of several hundred words or more, learning is generally more successful when it’s on paper than on-screen. A cascade of research confirms this finding.
The benefits of print particularly shine through when experimenters move from posing simple tasks—like identifying the main idea in a reading passage—to ones that require mental abstraction—such as drawing inferences from a text. Print reading also improves the likelihood of recalling details—like “What was the color of the actor’s hair?”—and remembering where in a story events occurred—“Did the accident happen before or after the political coup?”
Studies show that both grade school students and college students assume they’ll get higher scores on a comprehension test if they have done the reading digitally. And yet, they actually score higher when they have read the material in print before being tested. Educators need to be aware that the method used for standardized testing can affect results. Studies of Norwegian tenth graders and US third through eighth graders report higher scores when standardized tests were administered using paper. In the US study, the negative effects of digital testing were strongest among students with low reading achievement scores, English language learners and special education students.
My own research and that of colleagues approached the question differently. Rather than having students read and take a test, we asked how they perceived their overall learning when they used print or digital reading materials. Both high school and college students overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.
The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper’s physical properties. With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they’ve read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.
But equally important is mental perspective, and what reading researchers call a “shallowing hypothesis.” According to this theory, people approach digital texts with a mindset suited to casual social media, and devote less mental effort than when they are reading print.
Meanwhile, given increased use of flipped classrooms—where students listen to or view lecture content before coming to class—along with more publicly available podcasts and online video content, many school assignments that previously entailed reading have been replaced with listening or viewing. These substitutions have accelerated during the pandemic and move to virtual learning.
Surveying US and Norwegian university faculty in 2019, University of Stavanger Professor Anne Mangen and I found that 32 percent of US faculty were now replacing texts with video materials, and 15 percent reported doing so with audio. The numbers were somewhat lower in Norway. But in both countries, 40 percent of respondents who had changed their course requirements over the past five to 10 years reported assigning less reading today.
Psychologists have demonstrated that when adults read news stories or transcripts of fiction, they remember more of the content than if they listen to identical pieces. Researchers found similar results with university students reading an article versus listening to a podcast of the text. A related study confirms that students do more mind-wandering when listening to audio than when reading.
Research on learning from video versus text echoes what we see with audio. For example, researchers in Spain found that fourth through sixth graders who read texts showed far more mental integration of the material than those watching videos. The authors suspect that students “read” the videos more superficially because they associate video with entertainment, not learning.
Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators—and parents—shouldn’t assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.