New Research: Learning from Paper versus Learning from Screens

When I speak to parents, I often hear that they are scared that this generation of students is losing out, because they are learning so much more on screens. These fears are echoed in the press.  For example, the Washington Post wrote about how reading is taking a hit from online scanning and skimming.  In the class I now teach to college seniors, the students themselves echoed this fear, telling me that they believe that their reading comprehension suffers when they read on a tablet.

So are these students right?  Is paper superior to screen for learning, writing and comprehension?  We recently studied this question in a study completed at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA.  In a series of studies, we asked a several questions:

  1. First, what do students say they prefer paper or computer?
  2. Second, do they perform better in terms of memory and reading comprehension on paper versus screen?
  3. And three, would reading articles in either medium be better for writing an essay which required critical thinking?

Funnily enough, millenials overwhelmingly told us they prefer paper.  60 out of 66 students preferred paper to computer when studying. We thought that this generation of students, brought up using computers in the classroom, may have adapted to this new technology, but nearly everyone expressed a preference for paper, usually telling us they felt they could do better when reading on paper rather than a screen.

But even though our participants thought they would perform better with paper, and indeed we ourselves believed paper was superior, as scientists we wanted to test this intuitive feeling many of us seem to share.  First we measured reading comprehension and memory after reading material on paper, computers and tablets.    We found NO DIFFERENCE on any medium, even when they were allowed to multitask. But multitasking did make them take longer to read.

For our third question, reading source materials on paper versus screen also made no difference in their output.  Surprisingly, even though these students thought they would do better with paper, when push came to shove, the quality of their essay was the same. BUT in this case, once the students were allowed to access the Internet and to accordingly multitask, their scores were much higher in the computer onlycondition.  While seeing the source materials on paper neither helped nor hindered their essays relative to the other conditions, one use of paper did help; when students took notes using paper and pencil, their access to the Internet no longer hampered their performance.

So what’s the takeaway?  Bottom line, it doesn’t seem to make a difference whether you read on paper versus screen.  But once you add in the distraction of the Internet, your work will suffer.