Paper v. Screens

Students of all ages are increasingly adopting tablets and e-readers to access textbooks and other reading materials, and it’s important to assess how people process and understand digital text as compared to text on paper. Does the medium affect how people synthesize information, and do digital distractions play a role when using devices with internet access?

A recent study investigated the relative effectiveness of screens and paper for reading comprehension and report-writing, with implications for formal and informal learning. The results were mixed: the medium did not have a significant impact on reading comprehension or writing quality, but follow-ups revealed that using paper leads to more note taking and highlighting than reading on screens. The note-taking didn’t prove as useful for the reading task, but it was helpful for the writing task. Also, exit interviews also showed that participants (60 out of 66) overwhelmingly preferred reading from paper when studying.

For the first part of the study, participants read passages on paper, laptops, or tablets; all were given tools to take notes or highlight the reading, and some were given the opportunity to multitask using their phones or other devices. The on-screen readers reported more multitasking activities—listening to music, watching online videos, or responding to emails.

The second part examined how the medium affects more complex tasks. In this case, participants were given a variety of source materials, either on paper or a computer screen, to use towards writing a persuasive essay.

The results from the multitasking condition are interesting: people reading on paper still multitasked when given the opportunity to do so, and multitasking decreased efficiency no matter the medium. However, it seems like the multitasking was less disruptive for those reading on paper versus on screens. It may be that checking email on a device interferes less with reading on paper than if someone is using the same device for multiple tasks.

The main takeaway is that learners need to be strategic when performing complex cognitive tasks. Screens might not be the issue, but they do facilitate distractions.

Subrahmanyam, K., Michikyan, M., Clemmons, C., Carrillo, R., Uhls, Y. T., & Greenfield, P. M. (2013). Learning from paper, learning from screens: Impact of screen reading and multitasking conditions on reading and writing among college students. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning (IJCBPL), 3(4), 1-27.