Digital vs. Print Reading: Which one’s better?

Travis Dixon Cognitive Psychology, IB Psychology HL Extensions, Revision and Exam Preparation

Is your textbook better on print or kindle? The trend in the research is pretty clear.

Are you trying to study with your laptop and smartphone? You might even argue that you need your phone to study because that’s how you read your textbook. You might even be reading this digitally if your school has shifted to digital texts in favour of old-fashioned textbooks. In this post, we’ll see what the research says about reading digitally vs. on print so you can make an informed decision.

With the increase in digital texts for schools, there have been many studies to see how this affects reading comprehension, an important cognitive process in learning. Delgado et al. (2018) reviewed the research on reading on screen vs. reading digitally in a study called “Don’t throw away your printed books”. From the title, you can probably guess the results.

A meta-analysis comparing print vs. digital reading (Delgado et al., 2018): The aim of this meta-analysis was to analyze existing studies to see if reading medium (e.g. print or digital) affects reading comprehension. The researchers analyzed data from 54 studies involving over 170,000 participants conducted between 2000-2017. The results showed that screen reading was consistently associated with lower reading comprehension scores. The effect size of digital screens on reading was -0.21, a relatively small effect size. However, in the context of reading comprehension, this is quite a large effect. Delgado et al. point out that kids in elementary school improve on average each year by about 0.32. A negative effect of -0.21, therefore, is quite significant. The researchers state that the “…straightforward conclusion is that providing students with printed texts despite the appeal of computerized study environments

It’s quite rare to find a meta-analysis that conveys such a consistent pattern. Their results are fairly conclusive and consistent with other meta-analyses on the same topic. Results also showed that print was consistently better for reading comprehension when time was limited and the genre was non-fiction. They also found that as time went on (from 2000 to 2017) the advantages of print increased and devices that require scrolling are worse than those that do not.

Tip: If you can explain how cognitive load theory relates to digital vs. print reading, an experiment on this would make for an excellent Internal Assessment.

However, while Delgado et al. conclude that print is better, they also realize that “…given the unavoidable inclusion of digital devices in our contemporary educational systems, more work must be done to train pupils on dealing with performing reading tasks in digital media, as well as to understand how to develop effective digital learning environments” (Delgado et al. 2018). In other words, schools are going to keep giving students stuff to read online, so you have to learn how to deal with it.

One idea could be to teach annotation skills like highlighting and commenting to improve active reading strategies with digital text. The deeper you engage in the material you’re trying to learn, the more likely you are to remember it. Active reading strategies like highlighting, annotating, and asking yourself questions as you read are all effective at improving reading comprehension. These might be easier to do with print books compared to digital readers which is why they’re better for studying.

If you prefer to read online or that’s your only choice, how can you bridge the gap? Studies have found that the differences between reading comprehension in print vs. digital resources can be reduced if readers practice active reading strategies like writing down key words or writing a summary of the material just read (5). What about annotating digital texts? Could this improve comprehension? Investigating this was the aim of the following study.

The influence of text annotation tools on print and digital reading comprehension (Ben-Yehuda and Eshet-Alkalai, 2014): The aim of this study was to see how using annotation techniques when reading (both print and digital formats) would affect reading comprehension. Participants were 93 college students from the Open University in Israel. They were randomly allocated to read an informational text of about 850 words on fossils either digitally (PDF) or in print. They were further divided by asking half in each condition to annotate (highlight and make comments) while reading or to just read the text. Digital readers used Adobe tools whereas print readers used a regular highlighter and a pen. Afterwards, they were tested on their comprehension of the text based on factual and inferential (reading between the lines) questions. The results were consistent with other studies – those reading in print scored better on the reading comprehension tests than those reading in digital format. Not surprisingly, the print with annotations group scored better than the print without annotations group. However, this difference was only significant for the inferential questions; annotations made no difference in factual recall. A surprising finding was that annotations made no improvements in reading comprehension when using digital formats.

The pattern is clear – print reading is better than digital reading for comprehension. If annotations aren’t the answer, the question remains: why is print consistently better than digital? Cognitive load is one common explanation for the superiority of print vs. digital reading. Cognitive load is the amount of mental energy you are using to perform a task. Let’s say you can keep a maximum 5 things in your mind at a time (i.e. in your working memory), if you’re trying to think of 5 different things that’s a high cognitive load, whereas trying to remember just one thing is a low cognitive load.

One reason why reading on your phone is an issue is because simply having your smartphone near you while studying reduces your working memory capacity. This is because of cognitive load which is further separated into extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load. Your phone is a source of extraneous cognitive load – information that is irrelevant to the learning task that places demands on your working memory. This interferes with your ability to learn the material you’re studying. You’re thinking about the phone and that’s taking up valuable mental space, space you need for filling with the information you’re revising. This is the opposite of intrinsic cognitive load, which are the cognitive demands of the specific learning task.

Extraneous cognitive load is the demand on your working memory from stuff that’s not directly relevant to what you’re learning. According to cognitive load theory, reducing extraneous load will help you learn things easier.

Just having your phone in your hands is a source of extraneous cognitive load, reducing your available working memory resources to devote to reading. A book has just the information, whereas a digital medium (website, browser, phone, etc.) comes with an array of possible distractions all fighting for your attention.

Note: If you went through online learning during COVID and found it ineffective, it might be because “…online learning involves activities such as accessing course websites, navigating multiple-linked materials, determining the relevance among hyperlinks, getting lost in cyberspace, and solving technical and Internet connection problems, all of which split the learner’s attention and increase extraneous cognitive load” (Chang and Ley, 2006).

What about other readers that are designed just for reading? These don’t have notifications or apps. In the previous study, the researchers suggest the finding that “…annotation did not influence comprehension in the digital condition could be explained, at least partially, by the high cognitive load that results from the structure of a digital text.” The mere structure of the e-reader takes more cognitive effort to place a text in context when it’s more difficult on a screen reader to see what came before and after the bit you’re reading. The undeniable benefit of a physical book is the ease with which you can place the text in context. Where information is placed in a text can help comprehension because we learn by making connections. With a dart of the eyes we can skim over pages and see the headings and images and we can see what came before and what comes after (i.e. we can put the text we’re reading into context). You can easily flick through the chapters of this book, for example, and see that you just learned about how smartphone distractions can reduce working memory and this lesson connected to that to suggest another possible use for smartphones. Putting text in context like this is much harder in digital readers because once it disappears from the screen it’s gone, out of sight and out of mind. This might be why studies comparing print, scrolling, and non-scrolling show those that have to scroll score worse on reading comprehension tests.

It’s not all bad news, though. If you like reading fiction on your Kindle you might be okay. Delgado et al.’s meta-analysis found that there’s no clear difference in reading comprehension when the genre is fiction. However, if you’re cramming for a test in a hurry, you would be better off putting down the phone and opening a textbook.