An update to "Reading and studying from the screen"

Elevator tale: this post provides an overview of literature that has emerged since my 2016 paper "Reading and studying on the screen". It's a much longer post than usual, but most is supplemental. A review of additional studies comparing reading text from print and digital devices, four not considered and a further seven of which were published subsequent to or alongside my own, confirm my 2016 findings and recommendations. It is clear that future studies need to explore further dimensions if we are to learn more. In particular, studies should move beyond a simple, print-based comparison (applying digital design intentionally), and should also seek to measure differences that might come from briefing participants as to how to read effectively from digital media (removing the over-confident approach readers tend to apply when reading from digital sources).

One perceived barrier to digital education is that it requires students to read from a screen. In actuality the on-screen versus print debate is rather more nuanced than one being 'better' than the other. Most studies find NSD (no significant difference), though I share a concern that digital education and on-screen reading has the potential to hinder cognitive development. However the matter is more one of design than of default; it is perfectly possible to design a digital experience, involving on-screen reading, that provides an learning experience better than one available solely in print. And, there's nothing to stop printed matter accompanying a digital design - particularly if readings are lengthy.

Basing a learning design on a digital rather than print study experience is a binary choice. However, even if a digital experience is the basis of design, there are still shades to which print reading might be included. Conflating the binary choice with the shades of print seems to me a fundamental error in thinking and hinders progress toward digital education. To make this point hopefully clearer:

  • The decision to base design on a digital rather than print foundation is fundamental. Either a learning design is digitally-based, or it is print-based. If it is print-based, then a digital version might be made available however nothing is lost if that digital version is printed. If the design is digitally-based, not all elements might be printable but a significantly greater pedagogical choice becomes possible. 
  • The actual mix of digital and print resources used for the purposes of study can be a sliding scale. Literature supports the notion of a digitally-based design, with print options available where lengthy reading is required; print options might be reserved for articles, books or book chapters that are narrative (that is, that do not attempt to also serve as learning guides and therefore made the entire design essentially a print-based one).

I'm trying to keep abreast of the literature as it relates to this position. In 2016 "Reading and studying on the screen: An overview of literature towards good learning design practice" was published. In the article, I sought to overview on-screen and print comparison research to glean design principles for digital education. Various articles and reports have been published since the article and I missed a few in my initial research, so what follows here is a non-peer reviewed supplement to the 2016 article. You'd benefit from reading the article - or at least the recommendations - as background for this post. 

Overall, literature from the last two years reinforces my position and the suggestions I made. The following points are additional:

  • Preference for print overall is still strong however it seems that there is a steadily increasing acceptance of digital from among students, both for shorter texts (Baron et al 2017) and for e-textbooks (DeNoyelles et al, 2015).
  • EEG and eye-tracking findings suggest no additional cognitive or neural effort is required for reading digital texts Kretzschmar et al (2013).
  • There is a need for studies with longer comparison materials. Most studies are still considering 450 to 600 word texts, which tend to fit on a single screen. Full chapters, articles and books are need to help advance the literature. Singer & Alexander (2017a) suggest that 500 words is the effective limit for NSD across print and digital, whereas my article suggests up to 1,200 words; the disclaimers around both numbers clear up any apparent contradiction!
  • Research needs to flip from 'is digital as good?' to 'how can we make certain digital is good?' As Ross et al (2017) suggest, it is not just a matter of equivalence in reading outcomes and comprehension. Digital has a much broader set of capability, which must be harnessed in experiment if the benefits of digital design might be demonstrated.
  • We cannot assume that readers immediately apply their traditional print reading behaviours to digital text. Over-confidence in digital reading is attested to in several studies. Future comparison studies ought to test for the effect of briefing students to help them become self-aware, an intervention easily available to learning designers. The active reading intervention in Eden & Eshet-Alkalai (2013) below is the sort of thing designers can apply.
  • Comparison studies still tend to compare reading habits under highly artificial conditions, and offer brief texts with comprehension tests. Future studies ought to compare achievement of the same learning objectives using digitally-based and print-based designs. This will require a fuller and more complex methodology. The purpose of this type of study is to move the debate beyond reading, into learning design. There is, after all, much more to the educative process than simply reading. As Stoop et al (2013b) write, "in the presentation of educational material, form and content are firmly connected" (p.382).

We still have much to learn! Here are some brief notes from each article… think of these as a bibliography to this post.



Baron, N. S., Calixte, R. M., & Havewala, M. (2017). The persistence of print among university students: An exploratory study. Telematics and Informatics, 34(5). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tele.2016.11.008

  • A study of 429 university students aged 18-26, from various countries
  • 92% self-reported better concentration reading from print, and 80% indicated a preference for print if cost were the same; for shorter academic texts, preferences were much more mixed (hard copy preference 42.5%, 35.4% preferred digital)
  • More students (66.5%) indicated that they were likely to multi-task when reading digital texts
  • Advantages for print included the tactile experience and ease of note-taking. Disadvantages were lack of convenience and cost
  • The article gives a nuanced view of student preferences. The distinction made by respondents regarding shorter and longer academic texts, whereby fewer than half had a firm print preference, affirms my own recommendations related to adopting a digital design with print options for texts longer than 1,200 words. A useful citation, but not adding to my article's recommendations.     

DeNoyelles, A., Raible, J., & Seilhamer, R. (2015). Exploring Students' E-Textbook Practices in Higher Education. Educause Review, 1–11. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/7/exploring-students-etextbook-practices-in-higher-education

  • Over half of American college students have used at least one e-textbook in their tuition, and this proportion is increasing largely due to cost and convenience
  • Use of electronic resources in the K-12 sector is increasing, and is likely to lead to more adoption at college level
  • Multiple platforms, formats and usability are issues; not all e-texts are cross-device compatible
  • Instructors are providing annotations to e-texts boosts their value to students
  • Only 40% of survey participants across both 2012 and 2014 samples (from the same university, n=942 in 2012, n=1,181 in 2014) who had not used an e-text expressed a general preference for print
  • "In the very near future, we anticipate a shift in student expectations from a 'print book first' to a 'digital first' mentality when purchasing course materials" (np)
  • The article points out the importance of professional development for faculty, and having them model the use of e-texts. The article is more to do with e-texts than reading digitally however there are clear trends toward increased student use and acceptance of e-texts despite their stated preference for print. The article is clear about it not addressing instructional design considerations.

Eden, S., & Eshet-Alkalai, Y. (2013). The effect of format on performance: Editing text in print versus digital formats. British Journal of Educational Technology. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01332.x

  • NSD between print and on-screen across 93 participants (university students, age range 19-40y, average 23.9y)
  • Participants were asked to read, edit, identify errors, and improve the readability of 600 word papers in print and in Word
  • Students working in Word tended to complete the task quicker (yet still with NSD in performance)
  • This article has an excellent overview of literature
  • The article confirms the recommendations in my article, adding the likely benefits of active reading. Yet again, the research method is limited to short papers - a limitation acknowledged by the authors.

Hou, J., Rashid, J., & Lee, K. M. (2017). Cognitive map or medium materiality? Reading on paper and screen. Computers in Human Behavior, 67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.10.014

  • Comparison is across paper book, digital equivalent, and 'digital disrupted view', with n=45 undergraduate students, 18-34y
  • Proposes two reasons for print supremacy are cognitive mapping and tangibility of print, which are very well described; this study specifically tests for those two variables, and tests against eight literature-based hypotheses
  • The material compared consisted of a comic book!
  •  "Our results indicated that reading a paper book was similar to reading its digital equivalent, both of which were better than reading the digital disrupted view version in terms of reading comprehension, feelings of fatigue, and immersion" (p.92); "our results failed to show sufficient evidence in support of the medium materiality mechanism" (ibid.)
  • The study is straightforward in terms of stating its own limitations
  • This article adds a further dimension to print versus on-screen reading, by demonstrating that the format of the latter makes a critical difference. In line with my article, the findings suggest that providing land-marking in digital text in ways that avoid 'digital disruption' will likely increase reading effectiveness by improving structural cues to the reader.

Kretzschmar, F., Pleimling, D., Hosemann, J., F├╝ssel, S., Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I., & Schlesewsky, M. (2013). Subjective Impressions Do Not Mirror Online Reading Effort: Concurrent EEG-Eyetracking Evidence from the Reading of Books and Digital Media. PLoS ONE, 8(2). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0056178

  • The article states that in 2013 e-books were outselling print books in the US and UK
  • The study used EEG and eye-tracking methodology to test cognitive engagement with text across print, an e-reader, and a tablet device
  • Most participants expressed a preference for print, however there were no EEG or eye-tracking differences across age groups (young = 21-34y; older = 60-77y) or device with the exception of older adults, who had lower levels of engagement with tablet devices (likely due to contrast sensitivity and faster reading behaviour with the tablet); note that "none of the quantitative online measures collected support that reading was more effortful for the digital media" (p.8)
  • There was no difference across cognitive performance across any of the three devices (note that the experiment made use of short texts)
  • "Our findings thus indicate that people’s subjective evaluation of digital reading media must be dissociated from the cognitive and neural effort expended in online information processing while reading from such devices" (p.1)
  • This article clearly demonstrates the difference between preference and performance across print and digital reading. The combination of EEG and eye-tracking data clearly show NSD across short texts, and show no evidence that device reading requires more actual effort. This is a very citable and important study, very compatible with the recommendations in my initial work and positive evidence that cognitive load for digital reading is minimal. A similar experiment with longer articles would provide a very important contribution to literature.

Ross, B., Pechenkina, E., Aeschliman, C., & Chase, A. M. (2017). Print versus digital texts: Understanding the experimental research and challenging the dichotomies. Research in Learning Technology. https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v25.1976

  • Challenges the dichotomy of 'print versus text' in favour of increasing students' awareness of their options, and training them to take advantage of what e-texts make possible
  • "…students’ perceptions of e-texts, their familiarity, personal preference and even bias towards print-based texts may play a bigger role in how successfully students engage with e-texts compared to many other factors perceived as important" (np); e-literacy training for students and staff is therefore important
  • The article provides a useful overview of research findings, and is progressive in its suggestion that when it comes to print and digital text debating one over the other is not the point. The recommendation that training, professional development and e-literacy are important for taking matters forward is both welcome and appropriate. The article also proposes that the advantages of e-text include the possibilities of "more innovative functions, including speech outlining tools, quizzes, video libraries and sharing via social media platforms" (np), emphasising that the issue is not really one of equivalence even in the context of NSD across studies. Digital has much more potential. 

Singer, L. M., & Alexander, P. A. (2017a). Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal. Review of Educational Research, 87(6), 1007-1041. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654317722961; see also https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/08/16/which-better-reading-print-or-screen

  • Critiques articles comparing digital and print reading, up to 2017 (n=36 articles)
  • Questions the definitions offered for and measurement of 'comprehension' across studies, general trends of study design, and how current trends compare with Dillon's 1992 study
  • Great quote: "Ortlieb, Sargent, and Moreland (2014, p. 4) cited the process-oriented definition for reading forwarded by Anderson and Pearson (1984, p. 55) who described reading as involving 'the retrieval of previously acquired schema to assist the processing and understanding of new unfamiliar information.'" (p.1017)
  • Evidence is cited suggesting length of text (up to 500 words) makes no significant difference in comprehension, whereas texts greater than 500 words tend to find in favour of print.
  • The review concludes that "…when longer texts are involved or when individuals are reading for depth of understanding and not solely for gist, print appears to be the more effective processing medium…" (p.1033).
  • This article is a must-read for anyone wanting to get a sense of the various methodologies and findings of recent comparison studies. The authors point out the inevitability of digital reading, yet caution that print still has a part to play. Length, genre and briefing readers seem to be important factors for comprehension.

Singer, L. M., & Alexander, P. A. (2017b). Reading Across Mediums: Effects of Reading Digital and Print Texts on Comprehension and Calibration. Journal of Experimental Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2016.1143794

  • 90 undergraduate students, reading both newspaper articles (informational text) and book excerpts (literary text), in print and digitally. Questions were short-answer and not multiple-choice
  • Participants read four texts (each combination) from a pool of eight, each text of approximately 450 words
  • Participants tended to prefer digital text, and performed better when reading digitally
  • There were differences in comprehension type: better main idea recall with digital reading, better key point recall from print. No differences across newspaper articles and book excerpts
  • The preference for medium across different reading scenarios is striking. Most participants expressed a desire for digital reading, though the scenarios listed tended to be for short texts
  • Participants reading from print had greater comprehension of key points however participants self-reported that they thought they did better when reading digitally, confirming other findings related to digital readers over-estimating the quality of their reading
  • The article has a clear methodology. The findings related to student preference were surprising however again the study is limited to brief texts.

Singer Trakhman, L. M., Alexander, P. A., & Berkowitz, L. E. (2017). Effects of Processing Time on Comprehension and Calibration in Print and Digital Mediums. The Journal of Experimental Education, (21 December), 1–15. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1080/00220973.2017.1411877

  • 86 undergraduate students, mean age of 19.8y; tests for comprehension at three levels, print and digital versions of book excerpts (text limited to one page, ~550 words)
  • Significant differences in favour of print "on students’ recall of key points and other relevant information but not the main idea" (p.1); digital-readers tended to read more quickly and over-estimate their reading's effectiveness; NSD on overall comprehension
  • Participants were well briefed
  • The 'speed-accuracy' tradeoff may be behind digital's lesser performance. Processing time was a significant factor however digital readers were more likely to overestimate their performance
  • "…there is, at least, the potential that alerting students to the rather paradoxical pattern found between their judgments of performance and their actual performance might prove effective in minimizing miscalibration… it seems imperative to find ways to enhance students’ online reading to approximate certain perceived advantages of print" (p.13)
  • Favourite quote: "It would be unrealistic to suggest that teachers and students return to a world where only reading in print exists. For that reason, it is essential to approach the future of digital reading with more knowledge of the seeming advantages and disadvantages afforded by reading digitally and of evidence-based techniques for maximizing those potential advantages and circumventing possible disadvantages" (p.14)
  • The article is a good example of the research in this area. It is well designed, uses a small, less than 1,000 word text, and measures comprehension (though this time at differing levels). The findings of NSD in overall comprehension is consistent across most studies, though the nuancing of comprehension types is useful. As my own paper suggests, suggesting good reading practice to digital readers before the exercise might have made the critical difference. My first recommendation is that we deliberately "Orientate students to the potential dynamics of on-screen reading, making them more deliberate and focused about their reading behaviour" (p.39). A study applying this brief would provide an interesting freshness to comparison studies.

Stoop, J., Kreutzer, P., & Kircz, J. (2013a). Reading and learning from screens versus print: a study in changing habits. New Library World, 114(7/8), 284–300. https://doi.org/10.1108/NLW-01-2013-0012

  • Two studies:
  • The first investigated the use of e-texts by 241 city council members in the Amsterdam area.
    • Council papers were provided in print and on an e-reader; papers can be in the hundreds of pages
    • Findings suggested that the storage, preparation, writing style and structure of e-text documents are critical elements of their convenience in the context of city council documents
  • The second considered the reading of a marketing textbook (200 pages) by n=81 students.
    • 30 students had the printed book; 28 received it as a PDF file; the balance of 23 had the PDF version and an e-ink reader
    • None of the e-ink students used it for study purposes, as it was too slow and did not provide a flexible reading experience
    • PDF with laptop users reported disappointment that there were no enhanced features, and they were regularly distracted by pop-ups. Mobility and search were appreciated. Half of the laptop group printed the book
    • While participants were eager to try something new in the PDF versions, they tended to find print a more convenient and effective medium for study. The paper notes that the e-book was little more than a scanned print book (that is, there was no 'added value' to the digital experience)
  • The article considers the convenience of interacting with digital text as readers, noting that the devices used for digital reading and the form of text used are important considerations. The paper also suggests that digital text might consist of more than just scanned or transferred print text; the digital experience ought to make us think about the nature of how text is prepared and supplemented with audio, video, and hyperlink.

Stoop, J., Kreutzer, P., & Kircz, J. (2013b). Reading and learning from screens versus print: A study in changing habits: Part 2 - comparing different text structures on paper and screen. New Library World, 114(9/10), 371–383. https://doi.org/10.1108/NLW-01-2013-0012

  • This comparison study finds in favour of print as "a superior medium for learning and digesting complicated and elaborate texts" (p.371), though "electronic screens are appreciated for quick information gathering, communication and navigation" (ibid.) Actual findings are actually more nuanced, and in favour of screen. The abstract appears to be at odds with the actual findings
  • The first study demonstrates the advantages of digital learning where it is deliberately designed to leverage the medium
  • n=196 students for first test in this paper, 173 for second
  • First test, learning from paper versus computer screen; reading consisted of "a couple of paragraphs" (p.373); random assignment of participants
    • Findings: "In six of the 24 knowledge test questions, the 'print group' scored better, although statistically speaking, this was not significant. On the other hand, in the remaining 18 cases, the 'PC group' scored better, of which six had a statistical significance of 90 per cent or higher" (pp.373-374); there were no common characteristics across the questions that might explain the outcome
    • PC readers were more likely to use rehearsal questions, and preferred testing their understanding as they went; they also used the questions to help guide their reading
    • Qualitative findings indicated students anticipated that future education materials should move away from the concept of 'books' more toward active engagement with study, with "short and manageable" (p.375) texts as a critical component
  • Second test, additional features were designed for the digital version
    • Compared the same material across two forms: digital, in the form of an interactive mind map that included video; and print, supplemented with a web site
    • Students were from the School of Design and Communications, examining texts about Dutch landscapes
    • Results were "far from unequivocal" (p.377) in that the print group scored better on 8 out of 24 questions (3 significantly) and higher overall, whereas the digital group scored better on the remaining 16 questions; "[b]oth forms had advantages and disadvantages" (ibid.)
    • Placement of video clips was a factor in how the respective groups accessed them, and the format of the mind map (not all visible at once) was a perceived barrier; some students with the print treatment explained that they only viewed the video clips because they were conveniently available in the experiment (they might not usually bother with supplemental resources that require additional effort to find)
    • The authors note that "Just packing together different technologies does not improve the learning experience" (p.380)
  • It is surprising just how inaccurate the abstract of this paper is. Far from suggesting "All tests show that print-on-paper is still a superior medium for learning and digesting complicated and elaborate texts, while electronic screens are appreciated for quick information gathering, communication and navigation" (p.371), findings are actually "far from unequivocal" (p.377)! Importantly Stoop et al extend their study into learning design, which is arguably where studies must move if we are to learn more of worth about the comparative merits of print- and digital-based education.

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