Studying on paper vs the electronic screen

Do you learn better from screens or books?

Screens seem to be replacing traditional paper books. But researchers have found big differences in how we assimilate information from a screen and from paper.

Ever wonder how many books you can fit in an iPad? Well, a 32 GB iPad can hold about 9,000 books, in PDF or EPUB format. No wonder some schools are replacing textbooks with e-books. Besides, e-books can be downloaded or updated whenever needed, carried anywhere, and they’re searchable – which is a huge plus for doing research.

But tablets have some significant drawbacks, too. Staring into the screen before bed can throw off your sleep patterns because LED light affects melatonin regulation and sleep. And although choosing an e-book over a paper book means you’re killing fewer trees, to be fair, we also have to factor in the effect all those tablet batteries have on the environment.

But do we learn the same from screens as we do from traditional books?

Researchers in Norway studied grade-10 students to see whether they learned better from books or screens. The students were given the same material: half used a printout and the other half used a digital version of a text. The “paper” group scored much higher when quizzed on the material. The researchers attributed this to what they call “spatio-temporal markers”, i.e., remembering visually where the information was on the page. They concluded that scrolling through information on a screen loses the ability to visually recall as much information as using a printed page.

Is it the scrolling and not the screen that makes the difference? Another study indicated that this might be the case.

Geoff Kaufman (Carnegie Mellon University) and Mary Flanagan (Dartmouth College) studied young adults who read a passage from a short story on either a paper printout or a screen. The printouts and digital pages (PDF file) were identical in size, formatting and layout. The participants were then asked to take a pop-quiz, paper-and-pencil comprehension test. The screen group scored higher on recalling raw details from the story. But interestingly, the paper group scored higher on “inference questions”, being able to more deeply understand what they were reading. In other words, they meditated on the information and formed more complex, abstract connections. “Sometimes, it is beneficial to foster abstract thinking, and as we know more, we can design to overcome the tendencies–or deficits–inherent in digital devices,” added Flanagan.

My two cents (rounded down to zero with the demise of the penny)

I prefer to study on paper. I like books full of post-it notes all over the pages. I’m a note-taker. Margin-writer. Underliner. Doodler. Even though when I draw a brain it sometimes looks more like udon.

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Some of my recent lecture notes. I’m still a pencil and paper guy. Most of the time.

But lots of the material I study is only available electronically. I prefer a book reader over a tablet; I use an Onyx Boox M96, which is like a bigger version of a Kindle Paperwhite. That gets around the LED backlight issue, and is very much like a paper book. I’ll also print out sections and “go paper” for some material. I find that the process of writing down notes makes me remember better. And annotating via an app doesn’t seem to have the same effect for me.

What works for you? Do you learn better from paper, or have you gone completely digital? Or a combination of the two?

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Author: Colin Stone

Professional Relaxation Therapist (MASC, BSYA) and founder of the Relaxation Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Using guided imagery, therapeutic music and aromatherapy to relieve stress in the most relaxing room on earth!