During my university years, a large number of students would buy and read their textbooks online, saving money and making it easier to copy and paste relevant information into their digital notes.
While I didn’t like dropping several hundreds of dollars on textbooks every semester, I still purchased the print versions of my textbooks every year, simply explaining my choice with: “I don’t know. I just remember the information better when it’s printed.”
I couldn’t explain my decision any better at the time, but now, it looks like research is backing up my vague claim. A review of over 20 years of research found that—when it comes to any information longer than a page in length—students absorb information more easily from print texts than they do from digital texts. Three follow-up studies carried out by the same researchers confirmed that conclusion.
To get their results, the researchers had students read a mix of digital and printed text of varying lengths, then asked the students a mix of questions: both general questions about their preferences, as well as comprehension questions designed to assess their learning.
What they found was that, overwhelmingly, students preferred reading digitally and believed their comprehension was better online—but in reality, they did better on comprehension questions when they read printed texts, rather than digital copies.
In a piece for Business Insider, the researchers said their studies should serve as a reminder to students, parents and educators to carefully consider the mediums they’re using for learning. “One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter,” researchers Patricia Alexander and Lauren Singer wrote. They continued:
If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another. But when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print. … There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise.
While more research is still needed in order to find out exactly why students interact differently with print and digital texts, it’s still useful to know that the difference exists. Personally, I wouldn’t be throwing out my print textbooks anytime soon.