Jury Weighs in on the Case of Screen vs. Paper

While paper-based texts have not quite gone the way of the dodo, there is little doubt that we read on screens more than ever. A new rash of research is examining the pros and cons of both methods.

Comprehension of content from a hardback or an e-reader is the key marker researchers assess in these many studies. It is affected by variables such as the medium (traditional paper, smartphone, e-reader and the like) and the reader’s familiarity with digital landscapes.

However, one outcome of reading on a screen is clear. It encourages a less-methodical experience that is marked by skimming, reading only once, spotting keywords, reading in a non-linear fashion, and reading only selective passages, none of which aid comprehension.FEB2016_shutterstock_346701608

The researchers note that our plastic brains have devised these new styles of reading to adapt to the tsunami of information we deal with daily, but that this adaptation has come at a cost—sustained attention and comprehension. Reading on paper is simply less distracting: no links to click, videos to watch, or sound to adjust. The more stark atmosphere engenders deeper reading and consequently, deeper understanding.

E-books may be the exception to the rule. When testing readers performing a deep reading of a long text on paper and on a screen, the researchers found no difference in the readers’ emotional response to the text, speed of reading, and understanding of the story. Nevertheless, the readers who read the text on paper were better able to reconstruct a plot than those who read the same text on an e-reader. Researchers hypothesize that the feel of paper may help us process information, at least when we read longer works.

Scientists have yet to measure all the specifics in the case of screen vs. paper. The jury is still out.

–From Fast Company

Discussion questions

  1. Why do you think those who read a paper text were able to better reconstruct a plot than readers who read the same story on an e-reader?
  1. How do your personal reading habits differ when you read on paper compared to a screen?
  1. Why is it important to make sure you read work-related material, whether on screen or paper, without skimming?

4 thoughts on “Jury Weighs in on the Case of Screen vs. Paper

  1. cmccabe2015

    Can you cite the research that shows reduced comprehension with non-paper reading? I would like to see the studies and share them with others in my department.

    1. bizcombuzz

      I came across your comment again and wanted to direct your attention to this older article in the Scientific American:

      A quick Google search with the search terms “screen versus paper reading” will yield quite a few hits that may take you to studies that might shed light on this fascinating and far-reaching subject. –Dana

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