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My friend Joanne was packing her youngest child off to college this month and wrestling with a modern dilemma: Is it better to buy textbooks in digital form or old-fashioned print? One of her son’s professors was recommending an online text for a business course: lighter, always accessible and seriously cheaper ($88 vs. $176 for a 164-page book). But Joanne’s instinct was that her son would “learn better” from a printed volume, free of online distractions, and with pages he could dog-ear, peruse in any order, and inscribe with marginal notes. Her son was inclined to agree.

digital textbooks vs printed
Research suggests that students retain more details when studying from printed text rather than a screen. Credit: Credit: Hero Images

Many of us book lovers cherish the tactile qualities of print, but some of this preference is emotional or nostalgic. Do reading and note-taking on paper offer any measurable advantages for learning? Given the high cost of hard-backed textbooks, is it wiser to save the money and the back strain by going digital?

You might think that, decades into the digital revolution, we would have a clear answer to this question. Wrong. Earlier this year educational psychologist Patricia Alexander, a literacy scholar at the University of Maryland, published a thorough review of recent research on the topic.  She was “shocked,” she says, to find that out of 878 potentially relevant studies published between 1992 and 2017, only 36 directly compared reading in digital and in print and measured learning in a reliable way. (Many of the other studies zoomed in on aspects of e-reading, such as eye movements or the merits of different kinds of screens.)

Aside from pointing up a blatant need for more research, Alexander’s review, co-authored with doctoral student Lauren Singer and appearing in Review of Educational Research, affirmed at least one practical finding:  if you are reading something lengthy – more than 500 words or more than a page of the book or screen – your comprehension will likely take a hit if you’re using a digital device. The finding was supported by numerous studies and held true for students in college, high school and grade school.

Research suggests that the explanation is at least partly the greater physical and mental demands of reading on a screen: the nuisance of scrolling, and the tiresome glare and flicker of some devices. There may be differences in the concentration we bring to a digital environment, too, where we are accustomed to browsing and multitasking. And some researchers have observed that working your way through a print volume leaves spatial impressions that stick in your mind (for instance, the lingering memory of where a certain passage or diagram appeared in a book).

Of 878 potentially relevant studies published between 1992 and 2017, only 36 directly compared reading in digital to reading in print, and measured learning in a reliable way.

Alexander and Singer have done their own studies of the digital versus print question. In a 2016 experiment they asked 90 undergraduates to read short informational texts (about 450 words) on a computer and in print. Due to the length, no scrolling was required, but there still was a difference in how much they absorbed. The students performed equally well in describing the main idea of the passages no matter the medium, but when asked to list additional key points and recall further details, the print readers had the edge.

Curiously, the students themselves were unaware of this advantage. In fact, after answering comprehension questions, 69% said they believed they had performed better after reading on a computer. Researchers call this failure of insight poor “calibration.”

The point of such research, as Alexander herself notes, is not to anoint a winner in a contest between digital and print. We all swim in a sea of electronic information and there’s no turning back the tide.

“The core question,” Alexander said in an interview, is “when is a reader best served by a particular medium. And what kind of readers? What age? What kind of text are we talking about? All of those elements matter a great deal.”

On top of that, we all could do with a lot more self-awareness about how we learn from reading.

For example, a big reason that students in the study thought they learned better from digital text is that they moved more quickly in that medium. Research by Alexander and others has confirmed this faster pace. “They assume that because they were going faster, they understood it better,” Alexander observes. “It’s an illusion.”

If students become aware of this illusion, they can make better choices. Just as they might decide to turn off social media alerts while studying an online textbook, they might want to consciously slow themselves down when reading for deep meaning. On the other hand, when reading for pleasure or surface information, they can let ’er rip.

Digital text makes it easy for students to copy and paste key passages into a document for further study, but there is little research on how this compares with taking notes by hand.

“They assume that because they were going faster [reading digitally], they understood it better. It’s an illusion.”

“We study things like highlighting and underlining,” Alexander says, “but those kind of motor responses have never been of highest value in terms of text-processing strategies” – whether done with a cursor or a marker. The studying strategy with “the greatest power,” she adds, involves deeply questioning the text — asking yourself if you agree with the author, and why or why not.

Dutch scholar Joost Kircz points out that these are still early days for digital reading, and new and better formats will continue to emerge. In his view, the linear format of a traditional book is well suited for narratives but not necessarily ideal for academic texts or scientific papers.

“In narrative prose fiction, the author strictly determines the reading path,” he and co-author August Hans Den Boef write in The Unbound Book, a  collection of essays about the future of reading. “But in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.”

In addition to the hyperlinks, video and audio that currently enhance many digital texts, Kircz would like to see innovations such as multiple types of hyperlinks, perhaps in a rainbow of colors that denote specific purposes (annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.). He also imagines digital books that could enable a variety of paths through a body of work.  Not all information is linear or even layered, he told me: “There’s a lot of information that’s spherical. You cannot stack it up. The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding?”

While we await those future digital products, students deciding what school books to buy this fall would do well to ask themselves just what they hope to get from the text. As Alexander notes, “If I’m only trying to learn something that’s going to be covered on a test and the test is shallow in nature, then [digital] is just fine.” If, on the other hand, you hope to dive in deeply and gather imperishable pearls, spring for the book.

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  1. I consider this report timely, indeed, not to mention informative. Such a decision–digital vs. paper–is not just a decision that young(er) students may make either. It should be given serious consideration by educational agencies that purport to help teachers teach. Three very recent Frameworks (Think blueprints for curriculum.) have been published by the California Department of Education (CDE): History-Social Science, at 985 pages; English Language Arts/English Language Development (ELA/ELD), at 1073 pages, and Science at 1800+ pages. Because of the size of these guides, the CDE makes them available electronically only. When I priced a hard copy of the ELA/ELD Framework at a local copy place, I was told: $225. Because of my connection with my local university, CSULB, I got it for (only!) $75.

  2. One of the biggest issues I have found for my 6th grader after years of hard copies is getting familiar with the format being used. Now an assignment may say read pages 1 & 2 and answer between 7-15 questions on the assignment. At first I thought my daughter saying she couldn’t find answers was just being a bit bored and lax in studying. Then I tried to find the answers: There are also between 3-6 additional links to video or articles to read. And the question section is also about the additional pages and info.
    The layout just seems clunky and for an ADHD student getting lost in reading a side article before finishing the main page, or reading through so many extras she forgot the main pages lesson.
    I’ve watched her grades drop from A’s in 5th grade to barely passing the first 9 weeks.

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