GUEST POST: Reading From Screens Compared To Paper: What Are The Differences?
By Virginia Clinton
Virginia Clinton is an Assistant Professor in Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota. She holds a masters’ degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from New York University and a doctorate in Educational Psychology from the University of Minnesota. Dr. Clinton’s research focuses on the psychology of language, open educational resources, and student attitudes towards active learning. Follow her on Twitter @v_e_clinton.
Reading from screens instead of paper has become increasingly more popular in recent years. There are a lot of advantages to reading from screens. It’s convenient as your reading material is easily accessible from multiple electronic devices. Electronic books are usually cheaper than paper books. Some people opt to read from screens out of concern for the environment as they want to avoid the paper consumption involved with printing out reading materials. So it’s understandable that many students are reading their class materials from screens instead of paper. This has many people wondering if students who are reading from screens are learning as much as they would if they were learning from paper.
Dozens of studies have compared people reading from screens and paper. I was curious what the overall message of these studies was so I decided to do a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis is a research technique in which the findings from studies are aggregated. Meta-analyses provide a way of getting to “see the forest for the trees” as it gives an overview that allows an understanding of an overall effect. Personally, I am very “pro screen” as I like the convenience and lower costs, so I was hoping to show that when the findings from the studies were combined, the overall message would be that there is no difference between reading from paper and screens. I was wrong. Based on my meta-analysis of 33 studies, there was a small, but significant negative effect of reading from screens to compared to paper (1). I’m not the only one who was interested in this topic—two other meta-analyses have come out in the past year addressing similar questions (2,3). In these meta-analyses, each with slightly different studies included and different approaches to summarizing findings from each study, there was a small benefit for reading from paper over screens (2,3). There is also a qualitative review in which themes from various findings were examined with the same conclusion that reading from paper has a benefit over screens (4). So it appears that no matter how the findings from individual studies are added up and analyzed, the overall message is the same.
Why would reading from paper have benefits over screens? One reason could be due to differences in how confident students are in their performance when reading from different medium. In general, people tend to be overconfident in how well they are understanding what they are reading. This can lead to problems as overconfident readers put less effort into understanding the text (5). In the meta-analysis I did, I looked at the cumulative effect of eleven studies examining differences in readers’ overconfidence in their comprehension between reading from paper and screens (1). Overall, readers tended to be more overconfident when reading from screens, which could be one reason for the negative effects on performance.
Another reason could be due to reader preferences. In the studies I reviewed in my meta-analysis that examined medium preferences, readers overwhelmingly preferred paper over screens. I know from talking with students and colleagues that there is a definitely a preference for paper even with young college students who have a lot of experience with screens. It would make sense that readers would better engage with a medium they prefer, which could explain why reading performance is better.
Often times students will tell me they feel like they can focus better from paper than on screens. To see if mind wandering could explain some of the differences in performance between paper and screens, I did an experiment in which I had college student self-report their mind wandering while reading the same excerpt from a sociology textbook from paper or an iPad. There weren’t any differences. That said, I had the iPads disconnected from the internet to make for similar conditions between reading from paper and iPads. In the studies I examined in my meta-analysis, the conditions in which participants read from screens did not allow for internet access, so I wanted my study to be consistent with what was done before. If the internet would have been available, that could have prompted more distractions.
Personally, I like reading from screens for many reasons. I can use my iPhone to read one handed in poor lighting which has been incredibly useful for bus commutes or rocking my children to sleep. I also am much less likely to lose an ebook compared to a paper book. I can’t learn from a book I can’t find, so there are definitely practical learning benefits for me that way. There are also practical benefits for schools and teachers in that materials can be accessed, edited, mixed, and shared with students more easily and at a lower cost electronically. Plus reading electronically can have learning advantages through comprehension checks with feedback and software to customize material to students’ interests and reading levels. So I don’t see these findings as a reason to throw out my ereader and go back to printing everything out. Instead, let’s figure out why paper may help reading and what strategies can best help students read effectively from screens.
(1) Clinton, V. (in-press). Reading from paper compared to screens: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Research in Reading.
(2) Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., & Salmerón, L. (in-press). Don't throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review.
(3) Kong, Y., Seo, Y. S., & Zhai, L. (2018). Comparison of reading performance on screen and on paper: A meta-analysis. Computers & Education, 123, 138-149.
(4) Singer, L. & Alexander, P. (2017b). Reading on paper and digitally: What the past decades of empirical research reveal. Review of Educational Research, 87(6), 1007–1041.
(5) Sidi, Y., Shpigelman, M., Zalmanov, H., & Ackerman, R. (2017). Understanding metacognitive inferiority on screen by exposing cues for depth of processing. Learning and Instruction, 51, 61-73.