Reading on screens vs. paper: at last some sense

There has been far too much nonsense written contrasting reading on various types of screens1 with reading from paper. Some of the nonsense has been ‘research based’, though most of the research has been deeply flawed or trivial. At last there is a study that collates the data. They examined over 800 studies of which only 36 directly compared screen and paper!

See A Textbook Dilemma: Digital or Paper? for a journalistic noddy-guide to the results. Or read on…

As I hear it, key findings from this elephantine literature review, and so even more mammoth research effort include:

  • reading is faster on screen
  • comprehension is deeper on paper
    • subjects’ estimates of how much they absorbed were reversed (they thought they absorbed more from the screen)
  • most studies investigated linear texts, but hypertexts may be better suited to some tasks

Like so much research, none of this (except perhaps the recognition that people cannot effectively self-assess their information absorption) is a surprise. Once again, research underlines what sensible people have been saying ad infinitum. At this stage of technological development screens (of various sorts and this variability still needs to be properly investigated) and paper books have different advantages and different affordances.

Thinking of my current reading tasks:

  • marking student essays: clearly better on screen as reading is faster (this is a particular advantage for me as I am a very slow reader)
  • marking a PhD: paper is clearly better (as here I need better comprehension and retention)2
  • reading journal articles and book chapters in preparing a course: paper is better for better comprehension (except I find the material online, so waiting for paper delivery would be stupid, even if I had a POD machine)
  • reading a SF novel for pleasure: screen is better as I have no need to retain information

Except: for the PhD the case is more mixed as I have a deep and abiding revulsion to sitting chained to a desk (probably stemming from my sad experiences of education in childhood). The paper copy of the almost 500 page thesis weighs in at 1.25 Kg and is A4 by several cms thick, even printed doublesided, physically this is no easy task and hand strain limits the time I can spend reading. I also have to drop the brick and lift my laptop every time I want to make a note (how much easier to swap windows on my laptop).3

  1. Usually conflated as if screens were all one type of reading and it was the electronic imprint that mattered not the size or reflective vs. light emitting character, let alone how many other functions the device permitted… that mattered. []
  2. But see below! []
  3. I realise this last does not apply to most of you who learned to write easily and quickly with a pen or pencil, but my hand writing is extremely slow and very difficult to decipher later, quite aside from the advantage of cutting and pasting into my report. How I look forward the the time when NZ Universities finally enter the digital age! []

2 comments on “Reading on screens vs. paper: at last some sense

  1. Ruth

    I find dual screens the answer to reading something and writing comments. Read on one screen, write on the other. A lot of workplaces have this as standard setup now.

    1. tim

      I used to use two screens, back in the days when I was desk-bound. Now I’d ‘need’ a giant TV to achieve that effect ;) or someone must build a lightweight laptop with a fold out second screen!