E-reading may compromise student learning

Research suggests print may be the best medium for academic assignments

As e-readers and digital readings gain popularity, research is still catching up on whether computer-based readings compromise learning, one expert writes for The Conversation

Previous studies have found that participants scored about the same on reading comprehension tests, whether they read a passage in print or on a digital device. However, those tests only looked at learning in a simplistic way, writes Naomi Baron, the executive director of American University's Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning.

Now, researchers are delving into more complicated measures. In one study, a scholar asked people to read a piece on a digital device or in print and then to recall the plot sequence. Those who read in print fared better.

Another study found that students chose to spend more time reading in print—and performed better on a comprehension test afterwards.

In Baron's own research, she gathered data from 2013 to 2015 from 429 university students at schools in the United States, Germany, Slovenia, India, and Japan. 

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The students said print is aesthetically more pleasing, that it gives them a sense of place in the text, strains their eyes less, and doesn't encourage multitasking as much as digital texts do.

However, they also reported that they enjoyed digital reading because it's easier to read in the dark, saves paper, allows them to multitask, and makes it easier to find "quick information."

As professors move toward brief, straightforward readings, it's important to remember the overall effects on critical thinking, Baron writes. 

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"In my view, while short-and-to-the-point may be a good fit for digital consumption, it's not the sort of reading likely to nurture the critical thinking we still talk about as a hallmark of university education," Baron says.

"To become proficient in critical thinking—at least in a literate society—students need to be able to handle text. The text may be long, complex, or both. To make sense of it, students cannot skim, rush ahead, or continually get distracted," Baron writes.

While her study did not explicitly measure learning, it did ask students about their reading preferences and patterns. She found that students were more likely to reread academic pieces if they were in print, and some said print is a preferable medium for learning. In addition, of those asked:

Meanwhile, digital readings presented a "danger of distraction." 

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Baron also found that cost and convenience may be major drivers in students choosing digital over print media. More than 40% of the study participants said they enjoyed most the convenience of reading on a digital screen, while lower prices also drove them to buy that form of the material.

When asked which medium they would choose if the cost was equal, 87% said they'd go with print for academic work (Baron, The Conversation, 7/20). 


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