Study: Students Who Read Print Learn More Than Those Who Read Tablets

reading print
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A new study finds that students who read print texts understand the content better than those who read the same text on a handheld digital device such as a tablet. The findings could have implications for how digital devices are used in schools, says Ladislao Salmerón, the study’s lead author. 

Salmerón, a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Valencia in Spain, says the research came out of a concern that massive digitalization of reading in schools may lead to difficulties that must be understood and properly addressed.

The study comparing print texts to text read on handheld digital devices was recently published in The Journal of Educational Psychology. Here is what you need to know about it. 

What is The Significance of the Print vs. Digital Device Research?  

The advantage of print texts over digital ones has been seen in many previous studies, and education psychologists even have a name for the phenomenon: the “screen inferiority effect.” However, by and large, prior studies had compared print readings to reading on a computer screen, not the handheld devices that modern students use for most of their reading. 

Salmerón and his colleagues wanted to see if the screen inferiority effect occurs if you focused on handheld devices vs. print. To answer that, they searched existing studies and performed an analysis focused on only data sets comparing print reading to handheld devices. 

Ultimately, they looked at dozens of studies, pooling results from more than 100,000 students. As with previous research, they found students who read print consistently performed slightly better. 

While small, Salmerón notes, the effect observed is statistically significant and could have large implications. “In interpreting this we must consider that children in schools read every day, so this effect could be accumulated over time,” he says. 

Why Is Reading Print More Effective? 

The reasons for the screen inferiority effect are not fully understood. 

One possibility is called the shallowing hypothesis, which assumes that when reading on digital devices people are generally doing so for short periods of time and reading short pieces of text. This, the hypothesis holds, favors a browsing state of mind and causes people to be less cognitively efficient when reading on devices. 

Another theory holds that the tactile nature of reading, feeling each page, and remembering whether it was at the beginning of the book or the end, helps provide more information cues to connect with your memory. 

Neither theory has been proven. “We still don’t know what causes the screen inferiority effect,” Salmerón says. He adds, research is necessary to understand it. “This is essential if we want to prevent such inferiority from happening.” 

What Are The Larger Implications of the Research?  

This study has direct implications for educators, Salmerón says. “First, printed texts should not be abandoned. Second, educators should consider the goals of the tasks when deciding which reading medium to use.” He adds, “Tablets may be well-suited for internet inquiry tasks, but paper should be preferred when promoting comprehension of long texts.” 

Salmeron says he is not anti-technology, and is working with fellow researchers to try and better understand the screen inferiority effect. “We are trying to envision ways to improve comprehension by means of digital tools,” he says. 

Even so, he says it is harder for him and his colleagues to receive funding because it is often work that does not show a benefit for technology. In addition, he is often criticized by edtech enthusiasts who claim he has an old-fashioned perspective on literacy. 

“My response is that we should not ignore evidence, and should not discard practices that have been proven to be useful such as print reading,” he says.  

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.