Good Digital Parenting
Oct. 17, 2017

Electronic vs. Print Reading: Which is Better?

Events Intern, Family Online Safety Institute

As a graduate student, I am very conscious of my budget. I was happy to hear that for two out of my three classes, I did not have to purchase any textbooks. Both professors post their readings online for us to look over and take notes on. I appreciate the cost savings and flexibility, but am starting to miss reading from a book.

I am a Millennial and have had computers and the Internet for much of my life, though the web was not as widely used then as it is now. I can still remember a time when my family only had one desktop and my sisters and I would fight over the schedule of who could use the computer first. I cannot imagine growing up now with all the technology that is around constantly, nor can I imagine being successful in life without that technology; especially now that all of my assignments require a computer and the Internet.

Educause Review cites multiple studies regarding the disadvantages of online reading versus print reading. They describe how electronic reading causes short-circuiting, which they illustrate by noting that readers are now just searching for keywords or themes instead of reading an article as a whole. Electronic readers also spend less time trying to comprehend the readings and tend to multitask. For example, a study found that in the US 85% of students report multitasking while reading online, while only 26% report it while reading in print. Another Educause study states that in only a 15-minute period, students switched tasks an average of 3 times when they read electronically. From a sample of university students in the United States, Germany, and Japan, 90% of students said they would prefer print schoolwork over online if the costs were the same.

Other studies have found benefits to reading online. A Dartmouth study looked into the “details of learning” gained by reading both electronically and physically. They explain the “details of learning” to be the concrete facts of the who and the when of an article and compared this with the abstract concepts such as the where and the why. Their findings were that electronic reading helps one’s remember the concrete facts, but not the abstract concepts. To learn and remember the abstract concepts, paper reading is best. Their recommendation is for students to read in both electronic and paper forms to receive both benefits. They also describe focusing on the intention of studying to know what form is best.

 For example, if an exam is going to test you on the who and the when of a reading then studying electronically may be better than print studying. The flexibility of having readings online is a major advantage. On my commute to FOSI, I am able to read an article on my phone that is assigned for my class for the next day. It is much easier (and less painful) to carry my phone around than have to carry a textbook. As I read though, I found myself getting more distracted. While I am reading, whether on my computer or phone, I can “quickly” check my email, go on Facebook, do some shopping, answer a text, and so many other things. Somehow my “quick” check has taken 45 minutes and I am no longer on schedule with my homework. When reading from a book, those options are still there, but they are not attached to the book I am reading. I can work to make sure there is nothing else around to distract me from the reading I have to do. 

Both of these types of readings serve different purposes, and have many benefits. My personal preference is to read things on paper, to be able to write notes, go back to reread things with ease, and not be inclined to multitask. What is your preference?