In a few weeks, my son will learn what his midterm grades are. The fact is, they’ll most likely be higher if he studied using actual books—as opposed to digital versions—and took notes using an actual pen and paper.
That’s according to research included in a report that came out this fall, Paper and Productive Learning: The Third Annual Back-to-School Report. Although the report is produced by the Paper and Packaging Board, the research is solidly objective. When it comes to education, at least for now, paper puts students at a clear advantage.
Getting Past ‘the Muddled Conversation’
To understand further why people approach reading print and digital materials differently, I spoke with Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University. She is also the author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.
Interestingly, Baron says that sometimes onscreen reading is better than hard copy.
“I am convinced that there are a number of instances in which digital materials are far superior to print,” she told me. What makes the difference is understanding your goals and the kinds of students you’re working with.
“If you want to show videos embedded in a text, or do what’s known as adaptive learning, which allows you to read a short amount and then take a short quiz—that can be done so much better digitally than in print.”
But Baron says there are questions educators should be asking instead of lumping all of education together into one bucket—questions like, what kinds of textbooks? What subjects? What kinds of students? What are we trying to accomplish in a particular course?
“Unless you deal with that level of subtlety you have a very muddled conversation,” she says.
Study Results Point to Paper
Baron then went on to tell me about her research results, which were pretty stunning.
“I did a study of more than 400 university students between the ages of 18 and 26 in five countries: the U.S., Japan, Germany, India, and Slovakia. I asked them a number of questions, including, ‘what is the medium on which you concentrate best when you read?’”
The students could choose laptop, e-reader, mobile phone, tablet, or book.
“Ninety-two percent said I concentrate best when I’m reading in print,” Baron said. She had expected a majority to prefer print, but not such a huge margin.
In the U.S., more than 40% of responders said they can’t concentrate when they read digitally because they get distracted.
“Students perceive that when they’re reading in print, they need to read it in a particular way that’s different from online or digital reading,” says Baron.
“On screens, we’re used to scrolling, not to reading linearly. We scroll and scan when reading on screen.” Screen reading seems to demand less of readers.
Baron surprised me, though, when she said that studies showed no difference in the reading comprehension levels of print and screen readers. But she dismissed those results.
“This tells us nothing about learning—because this is an artificial experimental environment that doesn’t reflect real life.” The study participants simply do what they’re told to do.
There is a notable exception, however, to the superiority of paper as an educational medium. Baron says that technology questions are answered more accurately in a digital medium.
And what about note taking? Baron says, “If you test university students that took notes on a computer and those that took notes by hand, students who took notes by hand do better.”
I’ll be sure to tell my son.